National parks pinching pennies

Former Park Service employees say headquarters is hiding budget woes

  • David Horsey, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
 

Visitors to national parks are meeting fewer seasonal rangers this summer, and some programs have been stretched thin or discontinued entirely. Funding is so tight, a coalition of National Park Service retirees says, in some places it’s hard to keep toilet paper in the outhouses and the park rangers in bullets.

Parks across the West are feeling the budget crunch. At New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument, says Superintendent Darlene Koontz, "We’re going to spend the summer and fall looking really hard at staffing," perhaps reducing programs. The monument faces problems with the erosion of its archaeological sites and insufficient staffing for visiting school groups.

Washington’s Olympic Park initially hired only 25 seasonal employees this year, compared to 130 in 2001, and considered closing its visitor center in Forks before the Park Service hired three temporary rangers, carving out $29,000 from $1.5 million saved by slashing its travel budget. Superintendent Bill Laitner says visitor contact with park employees outside Olympic’s visitor center has shrunk by 86 percent in the last 10 years. Some visitors have been "coming to the park for 15 years and expecting a (ranger-led) campfire every night," Laitner says. "They’re not going to see that this summer."

And although Yellowstone National Park did not reduce seasonal staff, it’s employing 12 fewer permanent staffers than last year.

Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton has repeatedly claimed that the Park Service is "committing more money per employee, per visitor and per park than at any time in history." But the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees, which includes more than 250 former superintendents, regional directors and rangers, says politically appointed Park Service leaders are attempting to conceal budget woes. News of understaffed national parks and reduced visitor center hours could be a black eye for the Bush administration, which has touted improvements to the national parks as a centerpiece of its environmental policy.

Congress increased the Park Service budget by 7 percent in 2004, but the rising costs of homeland security, combined with a 4 percent federal employee pay raise, means many parks have had to divert funds from daily operations, according to Bill Wade, the coalition’s spokesman and former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, Va.

"We have had some challenges in making sure we have all the money for seasonal divisions," says Fran Mainella, director of the National Park Service. This year’s budget focuses on high-priority services, she says, such as increases in park security and firefighting, and it’s working to meet President Bush’s 2001 pledge to spend $4.9 billion over five years to reduce maintenance backlogs. "This has nothing to do with re-election," she says. "This has to do with running parks." And, she adds, government agency funding problems "go way beyond the parks."

In its 2005 budget proposal, the Bush administration says it has provided $2.8 billion toward reducing the maintenance backlog. The National Parks Conservation Association says that only $662 million in new funds has been directed toward that pledge, however.

Mainella says the 2005 budget request, now being debated in Congress, calls for a $102 million budget increase. A House of Representatives committee proposal, if passed, would add an additional $33 million for park operations and seasonal staffing.

Despite the difficulties, Mainella says, the parks are providing summer visitors with a quality experience. "The welcome mat is out," she says.

The author is a High Country News intern.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article is accompanied by a sidebar, "Park police chief canned for candidness."

High Country News Classifieds
  • POLICY DIRECTOR - FRIENDS OF THE INYO
    Seeking Policy Director to lead our policy programs to ensure the health/vibrancy of CA's Inyo/Mono Co. public lands. FT or PT. Remote OK but frequent...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Friends of the San Juans (Friends), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is seeking an experienced, passionate, and charismatic environmental leader to continue its strong community leadership...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, ARIZONA CHAPTER
    What We Can Achieve Together: Arizona's Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure...
  • CAPACITY BUILDING PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Capacity Building Program Manager works directly with the business unit's Arizona Healthy Cities Program Director to advance the Healthy...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND OFFICE MANAGER - FRIENDS OF THE INYO
    Friends of the Inyo - Donor database management & reporting, IT/HR, and office administrative support. PT or FT. Partly remote OK but some in-office time...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.