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Fran's Handing Off More Red Ink to Mary


    Word has it that Mary sailed through her confirmation hearing with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee today, as expected. No date's been set for the full Senate to vote on her nomination as National Park Service director, but that, too, will surely sail through without a hitch.
    That's the good news for Mary.
    The bad news is that Fran is leaving her in the hole to the tune of nearly $815 million.
    That's how much the Park Service is underfunded on an annual basis, according to a new analysis by the National Parks Conservation Association. Just five years ago the parks advocacy group estimated that the Park Service's annual shortfall was right about $600 million.
    "Park budgets are falling further behind," says Ron Tipton, NPCA's senior vice president for programs. "The good news is that Congress and the administration can do something about it."
    They can, but will they?

    Let's not forget that the Bush administration is proposing a $100 million cut in the Park Service's 2007 budget. Now, U.S. Senator Craig Thomas of Wyoming has been circulating a letter among his colleagues that asks the president to make a greater financial commitment to the parks. And I hear that Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has been visiting the White House to discuss the parks' funding situation, but it's too soon to say how either of those efforts will pan out.
    As for the NPCA's latest calculation, it's based on the annual appropriations Congress has doled out to the Park Service the past five years and the agency's fixed costs and annual Cost of Living Adjustments for park staff. NPCA also took into consideration cost-saving measures some parks have initiated, including the use of volunteers for jobs previously performed by staff, and park donations, such as the $15 million donated to Yellowstone for a new visitor center at Old Faithful.
    A prime driver of the agency's financial woes is the annual Cost of Living adjustments that are mandated by Congress. For example, the NPCA review shows that in Fiscal 2005 the increase amounted to a 4.1 percent hike in a park's costs, but the administration provided only a 1.4 percent budget increase to offset that COLA bump. Other financial drags include the unfunded Homeland Security tasks handed the Park Service and year-to-year maintenance.
    Nice economics, eh? That's one of the reasons parks are forced to cut back on manpower, reduce interpretive programs, and rely more and more on volunteers and the private sector to handle jobs previously performed by rangers.
    "In national parks from Yosemite to Apostle Islands to Gettysburg, insufficient annual funding is causing park managers to cut public education programs, science, and research; reduce visitor center hours; postpone road, trail and historic building maintenance; halt cataloging and preservation of historic and cultural artifacts; limit work to combat invasive species and poachers, and; even clean park restrooms less frequently," says NPCA.
    In a nutshell, come September 30, the last day of Fiscal 2006, NPCA figures the Park Service's annual budget shortfall will total $814,674,000. Oh, and by the way, that figure does not include the cost of running the Park Service's Washington headquarters or the regional offices.
    Not exactly the best welcoming present for Mary, is it? Let's hope Congress will be kinder.


"They can, but will they?" Not while spending $1B a month in Iraq, and beefing up the active duty Army, and buying jet fuel for Air Force jets, and watching tax dollars flow out the door to those who hardly need more cash on hand, and buying speech platform backdrops for the president, and jetting around in Air Force One.

The problem is, I wonder how many people (outside of card-carrying members) take that $815 million figure seriously? In particular, I'm referring to people like the career civil servants in the National Park Service and Department of the Interior budget offices, the career staff at the Office of Management and Budget, and the staff members of the Congressmen and women who will ultimately set the National Park Service's budget. I'm worried that unfortunately the NPCA doesn't have a lot of credibility among these people. An interesting point to consider is that the 2006 Park Service budget is somewhere around $2.6 billion. In other words, eliminating this so-called shortfall would represent a 31% increase in the National Park Service's budget. Does anyone really believe that such an increase is feasible? And could such an increase really pass muster when weighed against all the other federal spending priorities? If the case for an $815 million shortfall is going to be made, it probably needs some better evidence. Just thinking like a skeptic, if the National Park Service was truly being funded at only 3/4ths of what it should be - would so many people really be satisfied with their National Park experience? Would the National Park Service also really be able to be building new Visitor Centers at Grand Teton, Ft. Stanwix, and other places - including new Visitor's Centers at Yellowstone? I think you really nailed it when you mentioned in an earlier post that there is much work that needs to be done before closing a supposed $815 million funding gap can seriously be considered - including a detailed review by the National Park Service as to how it uses the resources it is already allocated, and what its true funding needs and priorities really are. Until that happens, I don't think it will be possible to convince the Department of the Interior Budget Office, nor the Office of Management and Budget, nor the key Congressional players, to truly fund a significant budget for the National Park Service - and thus things will continue to just muddle along.

Re: Volunteers handling ranger duties. If the parks can get volunteers which cost nothing to replace rangers, isn't that just smart fiscal management? I've seen volunteers being used to hand out maps, answer simple questions in the Visitor's Centers and things of that nature. One of these day, when I'm retired, I'd love to be a volunteer myself. It's called serving community and country. Not a bad thing.

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