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."

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