National Park Service is put on a starvation diet

  • Roger Kennedy, National Park Service director


During the week of May 22, America is to celebrate "National Parks Week," " a creation of new Park Service Director Roger Kennedy. But some Park Service employees may not be in the mood to join the celebration.

The new director is driving the agency headlong into a sweeping reorganization that may include job cuts of up to 25 percent in some divisions and elimination of four of 10 regional offices. He has already imposed a hiring freeze.

This at a time that Kennedy himself admits the nation's parks are impoverished and underpaid rangers are stretching already inadequate funds to deal with mounting visitor numbers.

As the nation's top park ranger, Kennedy has defined himself as a salesman hired to focus public attention on national parks that fell out of the spotlight during the Reagan and Bush administrations. But as his first year draws to a close, the 68-year-old lawyer and former journalist, banker and museum official has yet to draw strong support from his own employees - who by now are used to lackluster leaders.

"Top leadership in the National Park Service has been fragmented and lacking vision pretty much for 15 years," " said Don Castleberry, a regional director who retired in April. While Kennedy, a political appointee, is a genuine friend of national parks, Castleberry said he suffers from not knowing enough about the Park Service.

"You can't rebuild a bureaucracy without help from the people in it."

Many Park Service insiders agree a shakeup may do the agency good, but suggest Kennedy may have started shaking things before figuring out what he wants to result.

Even some environmentalists, who hoped the new administration would rejuvenate the Park Service, express frustration. Kennedy, they say, has been all but silent on major issues, such as how to deal with R.S. 2477, an obscure federal law that may allow states to turn old trails through national parks into paved highways.

In published interviews, the new director has dodged more questions than he has answered - avoiding such topics as whether visitation should be limited in the most crowded parks. In fact, Kennedy has gained more public notice for his memos than for what little he has said about the future of America's national parks.

First there was his memo offering guidelines for Park Service party-giving: "Cocktails should never last more than one hour, unless the event is a reunion, in which case a little more time is appropriate." The memo, sent to the agency's top two dozen officials, was recounted in a Washington Post article that began, "Party on, park rangers."

Then came a memo, also recounted in the Post, urging a colleague to find a job for a John Trevor, who Kennedy described as a "Swahili-speaking person who has Peace Corps experience, is a cum laude in English from Harvard and has a biological background in data manipulation." He added this caveat: "Unfortunately, Mr. Trevor is white, which is too bad." Kennedy wrote the memo just two weeks before announcing major Park Service job cuts to his staff.

In a more recent memo, Kennedy gave more than 100 top officials helpful hints to remember when drafting letters for his signature.

"1. Please do not split infinitives. Adverbs should go before the infinitive or after the infinitive but not in the midst thereof."

There was also his televised statement that Americans "are willing to be taxed and taxed" to support national parks. That came just as the Clinton administration was trying to blunt criticism of its first budget bill, which included tax hikes.

Stories are already circulating in the agency that if Kennedy's blunders continue, his tenure as National Park Service director may not. But whether or not Kennedy is worried about his job, many of the National Park Service's 20,000 employees are worried about theirs.

All federal agencies, particularly those dealing in land management, face change, due both to Vice President Al Gore's "reinventing government initiative" and the Clinton administration's effort to reduce the federal workforce by 252,000 employees by 1999.

A buyout this spring was the first step. The U.S. Forest Service gave up more than 2,000 of its 30,000-plus employees. The Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Indian Affairs also gave up plenty of personnel. And the National Park Service lost more than 500 to the buyout.

But unlike other agencies, with the exception of the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Park Service had launched a major reorganization effort as early as last year - feverishly embracing the administration's notion of a streamlined government. At Kennedy's behest, Park Service brass are plotting to cut more than 1,300 positions. If the buyout and attrition don't do it, layoffs might result.

"Nobody knows what the shape of the Park Service is going to look like after all this is done," said NPS spokesman Ben Moffett.

In messages to his workforce, Kennedy has alluded to plans for slashing 25 percent of the jobs in the Park Service's 10 regional offices and support centers. A hiring freeze began in February. He wants to eliminate regional offices in Seattle, Anchorage, Boston and Washington, D.C., while rerouting resources to the parks.

In a Dec. 6, 1993, letter titled, "Our Circumstances," Kennedy told employees: "We must measure success by how well the organization serves the places under our care and our primary "customers' ... ot by how well it meets the needs of the bureaucracy." " Kennedy says he wants higher salaries for park rangers, half of whom earn less than $25,000 each year. And he says he favors raising visitor fees and extracting more money from park concessionaires. But he has not offered any clear strategy either for achieving those goals or for making the cuts he wants.

That has left lower-level employees worried about what might become of them. Some suspect that Kennedy's much-touted streamlining will turn out to be nothing more than a glorified "shrinkwrapping" of an agency already accustomed to doing more with less. While the agency fielded one ranger for every 59,000 visitors in 1980, for instance, it now has just one ranger per 80,000 visitors.

"The anxiety level is very high, especially among newer people," said Charlie Clapper, director of the agency's Denver Service Center, which provides planning and architectural support to America's parks.

There is hope the administration will repeat cash incentives to spur more early retirements and resignations in coming years. But there is also fear that agencies will resort to layoffs known as "reductions in force," or RIF.

If that happens, seniority determines who stays. The most recent hires are first out the door.

"There's no question that a large portion of those are the women and minorities we've tried so hard to recruit in the past several years," Clapper said. "We hire a lot of professionals, architects and planners, and we've worked hard to get a good diversity of people."

Michael Milstein reports for the Billings Gazette from Cody, Wyoming.

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