The national park popularity contest

by Judith Lewis Mernit

Should the National Park Service take Sen. Tom Coburn's advice? In a 208-page report released Oct. 29, the Republican from Oklahoma blames the agency's financial troubles on lawmakers who designate pet parks to boost their popularity back home. If there's no money to fix water lines at Grand Canyon or toilets at Yosemite, Parked! asserts, it's because the Park Service has frittered it away on those "parochial concerns."

Coburn's report, timed to coincide with the Park Service's 2016 centennial preparations, is an interesting and occasionally entertaining read. Who knew that the feds spent $217,084 restoring neon signs along the Southwest's iconic Route 66? Or that 93 cattle reside at the Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site, a "living history" ranch on I-90 between Glacier and Yellowstone? The report evaluates parks by how much taxpayers spent per visitor, a peculiar but informative metric: The Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in eastern Alaska comes in at a staggering $1,300 subsidy per visitor; Grant-Kohrs costs $85.

In fact, says the report, "more than 70 national park units attract fewer than 100 daily visitors." More Americans are struck by lightning every year than visit Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve in Alaska's Aleutian Range, and the Arkansas Post National Memorial reports that its few visitors got lost on the way to somewhere else. "When someone shows up at the Thomas Stone National Historic Park site in Maryland," Parked! reports, "the ranger says, 'I hope it's not UPS again.' "

"Of the 401 park units the NPS manages," Coburn concluded in a recent interview with Fox News, "a third aren't real treasures, and should never have been made parks in the first place."'

That kind of thinking is anathema to Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, of course, who considers it his personal mission "to break through the public perception that all the Park Service does is manage five big Western parks, and all their names start with Y."  The national parks system is supposed to "represent the history and environment of America," he recently told a group of journalists in Los Angeles. Even the lesser-known park units "are still of value in telling the story of this country."

Coburn – who has often fought federal land protection in the name of energy development – may not be the best person to argue with that. When, in early 2009, he threatened to filibuster the omnibus lands bill introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D.-N.M., it wasn't out of concern for Yellowstone's sewers. It was because the bill protected land for parks and wilderness, land Coburn saw as containing "300 million barrels of proven oil that we are no longer going to take."

No one disputes that national park infrastructure needs upkeep; except for a decade-long respite that ended in 1966, the agency's "deferred maintenance backlog" has been an issue since the late 1930s, when New Deal construction programs expired and the country went to war.  In 1997, the backlog totaled an estimated $6.1 billion; in 2008, it was $9 billion. Now it's close to $12 billion – almost five times the agency's entire budget. Periodic attempts have been made to reduce it, but the $735 million in the 2009 stimulus was just enough to delay the backlog's growth for about a year.

Coburn's solution is simple: Put a moratorium on new parks until the backlog has been reduced to zero, and strip the president of the authority to create national monuments under the Antiquities Act – long a bête noire of conservative lawmakers. Meanwhile, Coburn recommends piecemeal solutions, such as doing away with the $289,000 Route 66 National Historic Highway Program and raising the price of senior citizens' lifetime passes from $10 to $80.

But it's "absolute fantasy" to think any of that would help, says Craig Obey, the senior vice president of government affairs at the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. "If you want to address the backlog, you need to understand that backlog." Close to half of it involves crumbling roads, bridges and other transportation woes. Congress can address that, Obey says, in the Park Service's share of annual highway appropriations, as Jarvis has requested.

Oddly, Parked! buries that same point in a footnote, which makes the whole document seem like much ado over an agency whose entire annual expenditures amount to just 1/15 of 1 percent of the federal budget. Park Service appropriations have already been cut 6 percent over the last two years; another 6 percent went in the 2013 continuing resolution known as the sequester.

And that was all before the shutdown – a debacle that cost the Park Service $450,000 a day in lost revenue and inspired grand acts of civil disobedience: Frustrated visitors and their children defied the gates at Zion; "Occupy Yosemite" protesters staged sit-ins at Tuolumne Meadows. Jarvis considers those demonstrations patriotic. Obey, however, finds them ironic. "When the sequester began closing parks, you didn't have people breaking down barricades," he says. "The truth is there's been a slow-motion shutdown in progress for years." If Coburn wants to do something about it, he adds, "he'll have to do more than throw out opinions and numbers that don't add up."

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