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Report Shows Visiting National Parks Could be Hazardous to Your Health


Negotiating the Wawona Tunnel in Yosemite National Park could be hazardous to your health, according to the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General. Photo by km6xo via flickr.

Visiting national parks could be hazardous to your health. That's the conclusion that can be drawn from a snapshot of health and safety conditions across the National Park System.

The assessment, made by the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General, casts an alarming and greatly disturbing portrait of safety not just throughout the national parks, but across many, if not all, of the agencies that fall under Interior.

Reading the report, which you can find by following the "recently released reports" link at this site, it's almost a wonder that there hasn't been a serious accident somewhere within Interior's empire. Along with the National Park Service, Interior oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Prepared at Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's request, the report singled out the Wawona Tunnel in Yosemite National Park as a serious threat to human safety because the tunnel has gone two decades without serious attention to maintenance and safety.

The National Park Service has allowed crucial maintenance to lapse for years at many of its parks. For at least 20 years, NPS has not performed critical maintenance on its aging Wawona Tunnel located in Yosemite National Park. We concluded that the hazardous conditions in the tunnel endanger lives.

Indeed, one Park Service official told the Inspector General's staff that, "I am alarmed at the potential for a catastrophic event of massive and deadly proportions in the Wawona Tunnel."

While work is under way to correct the tunnel's problems -- repairing exhaust fans so all three can operate properly, addressing the lack of fire escape exits and carbon monoxide sensors, developing an emergency response plan -- the Inspector General's staff visited just 10 of the park system's 391 units, leaving open to question whether other serious health and safety problems are lurking.

Judging from written comments received by the inspection staff, Interior and its agencies have seemed to lack a safety culture.

Some of these comments revealed many health and safety conditions that are serious and have gone uncorrected. Comments also revealed instances in which safety is not a priority and where employees have been retaliated against for reporting health and safety issues.

The Department and its bureaus need to systematically identify and correct health and safety deficiencies by making the protection of employees and the public an integral part of their asset management process. They must take immediate steps to prevent existing hazardous from escalating into deadly ones.

In their sampling of 10 parks, the Inspector General's staff found:

* The headquarters administration office at Grand Teton National Park does not meet earthquake seismic safety codes. Park employees who work in the Moose Maintenance Facility are exposed to poor indoor air quality "caused by vehicle exhaust coming from a garage where snow plows, dump trucks, and ambulances were kept. The facility was also over-crowded."

* At Dinosaur National Monument, deterioration of the Visit Center, which has been closed, continues to "put the irreplaceable fossils at risk. The day-to-day maintenance that is essential to keep the building standing has not been performed. As a result, the fossils were being degraded by exposure to weather and vermin droppings."

* "Providing safe drinking water and properly disposing of wastewater at Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks present a growing risk to the health of employees and the public. Combined, these parks operate 47 drinking water and 42 wastewater systems. An official at Yosemite stated that the park struggles to keep its aging systems running and repairs are usually not made until the facilities break or fail. (my emphasis) In addition, two of Yosemite's water systems did not comply with federal health regulations and many of Yellowstone's systems were in various states of deterioration.

* "NPS pilots at Denali and Lake Clark national parks in Alaska work in conditions that have been reported as unsafe for nearly 10 years by Departmental aviation experts. The airplanes are primarily used for search and rescue, wildlife surveys, scientific research, and law enforcement patrol."

The report, issued late in March, prompted an immediate response from Secretary Kempthorne to address the deficiencies.

"He has made a personal commitment to the employees to improve health and safety agencywide," a spokeswoman for the secretary told the Washington Post. "When this report came out, the secretary deputized a deputy secretary to immediately create a task force to conduct an expedited review of its findings and recommendations."

Many of the problems can be traced to that incredible landscape that Interior oversees, coupled with a lack of resources, both financial and staff. For example, between Fiscal 2000 and Fiscal 2006 the backlog in Interior's maintenance programs ballooned "at least $2 billion," to somewhere between $9.6 billion and $17.3 billion, the report states.

"The Department faces the difficult challenge of maintaining an infrastructure valued at over $65 billion and spread over 500 million acres," the report notes. "The ability to adequately maintain this infrastructure is hampered by limited resources and the aging of the facilities. This infrastructure includes approximately 40,000 buildings; 4,200 bridges and tunnels; 126,000 miles of highways and roads, and; 2,500 dams as well as nearly every type of asset found in a local community."

And yet, Interior has just 175 full-time "safety professionals" to oversee its health and safety program.

Some other highlights of the report:

* The accident rate among Interior employees is one of the highest in the federal government. "During FY2006 4,409 workers' compensation claims were filed, representing a claim rate of 6.27 out of every 100 employees, exceeding the federal average by 41 percent. That year, the Department paid $58 million in claims and lost 15,000 days of employee work, which equates to 58 work years."

* Interior does not have "an organizational structure that facilitates an effective health and safety program."

* Interior does not have "effective coordination between the health and safety and asset management programs."

* Interior does not have "adequate numbers of trained safety staff."

* Interior does not have "an effective facility safety inspection program."

In response to the Inspector General's report, Secretary Kempthorne, among other things, appointed James Cason to oversee safety for Interior; agreed to create a position of Chief of Health and Safety; agreed to develop a department-wide action plan to eliminate significant health-and-safety deficiencies, and; agreed to create a funding strategy to address health and safety issues in a timely manner.

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This is truly sad. I hope someone is going to come up with a sincere, effective plan to address these issues. I don't think another overpaid bureaucrat is the answer.

The real problem in a nutshell can be gleaned from a key quote in Kurt's article which strikes at the very heart of the problem: "When this report came out, the secretary deputized a deputy secretary to immediately create a task force to conduct an expedited review of its findings and recommendations."

If simply creating yet more bureaucracy is the only response that the calcified and top-heavy NPS management team can come up with then it is not a hopeful sign that dramatic change is on the horizon for the proper maintenance of the parks or for the safety of staff and visitors.

Though this is what we've come to expect it is nonetheless a sad statement on the "business as usual" response from the befuddled stewards of "America's special places".

I'm going to be spending the next 4 years travelling the US's National Park system as well as several State Parks (not to be named for obvious reasons). We will be documenting ALL issues that we find in ALL parks and will make them publically, and hopefully nationally, known.

Pray for us. Please. I'm not a religious person, but there are a lot of people who would go to great lengths to keep this from happening - especially in the form of a mini series, an investigative documentary, a movie, several books and a lecture tour - to start with.

The Druid


I thought you'd decided not to participate in Traveler any more... it's sad that no matter what the problem in the national parks, you always find a way to blame the "top-heavy" "befuddled" managers of the NPS. I'm not suggesting managers are blameless, but did you note that a significant finding of the report was that:

"The Department faces the difficult challenge of maintaining an infrastructure valued at over $65 billion and spread over 500 million acres. The ability to adequately maintain this infrastructure is hampered by limited resources and the aging of the facilities."

What's your simple answer?


J Longstreet,

Both Beamis and I were asked to stop posting on the site. For me the asking was a bit stronger; my user account was deleted for me. As I write these words, I have a feeling they may just be deleted, even though there is no profanity or personal attacks contained therein.

I think people have mistaken our disdain for bureaucracy--accompanied by a passion for preserving nature--as personal attack. My vitriol is aimed not at individuals, but at the bureaucratic, self-perpetuating system that threatens the preservation of national parks.

"The Department faces the difficult challenge of maintaining an infrastructure valued at over $65 billion and spread over 500 million acres. The ability to adequately maintain this infrastructure is hampered by limited resources and the aging of the facilities."

What's your simple answer?

My simple answer is that the DOI infrastructure is too large to maintain, and like Rome's empire, our federal empire faces collapse under its own weight. We should be asking ourselves why we've developed nature to the point that it--which should be self-perpetuating--can't do without us. National parks were supposed to be left unimpaired; $65 billion in infrastructure seems a huge, and hugely expensive, impairment. Printing more money to feed the every-hungry bureaucracy seems like an effective quick fix, but it will only harm national parks in the long term.

And long-term sustainability is what we should be thinking about.

Mr. Longstreet my suggestion is the same as it has always been: DECENTRALIZE! Start with a commission to determine which parks are essentially political pork (the Steamtowns and such) and find out if there are any municipalities, private non-profit trusts or subject focused preservation societies that would be interested in taking over those sites identified for transition out of the NPS. Believe me there are many such areas that are bleeding the agency dry and depriving more worthy parks of much needed care.

This process, once begun, would gradually free up money for more important and substantial parks (places like Yosemite and Yellowstone) that could start to address some of the less glamorous tasks of park management such as physical infrastructure and routine maintenance.

Ultimately I, and many others, would like to see the U.S. government get out of the park business entirely and gradually turn these areas over to non-profit and smaller more regionally focused governmental entities. The politics of Washington is not at all conducive to the orderly and efficient function of much, including the administering of wild and historic properties.

Do you really think that the average American would actually care if the Grand Canyon had Arizona state park rangers leading hikes and collecting entrance fees instead of the green and gray? Would vast numbers of people stop visiting just because the current Secretary of the Interior's picture no longer adorned the walls of the park HQ? I submit that the answer is an emphatic no.

Good luck on your journey Druid. Maybe I'll run into you this summer somewhere between Moab and Kings Canyon.

Frank and Beamis,

First of all, welcome back.

Now, in light of Frank's contention that the two of you were asked to stop commenting at the Traveler, let me set the record straight by pulling from the email I sent you both last December:

I don't think there's any question that you ... have commented more on the Traveler than anyone else. At times your comments have provided valuable insight into the machinations of the NPS and contributions to the overall dialog. However, there are times when your comments have been overly negative, to the point that not only do they drown out others but, as has been noted twice publicly in the past 24 hours and a number of times privately, have others deciding not to comment, and that's a problem.

In extreme cases, folks simply are not returning to the Traveler.

As you know, one of our goals at the Traveler is to spur discussion and debate of the National Park Service and the national park system with hopes of exploring solutions to ongoing problems as well as spawn more advocates for the system. And, judging from the overall tenor of your comments, you both share this mission in some form.

And that's where an irony strikes. While you want to change the Park Service, your at-times-overly-strident comments are actually muffling debate on the site and, in effect, preventing dialog that just might have some small impact from continuing and evolving. As ardent supporters of the park SYSTEM, I'm sure this is not your intent.

The Traveler's mission is not to tear down the Park Service, and, unfortunately, that's the stance you both seem to have chosen. We do not disagree that work needs to be done within the agency, but we do believe change can come from within. Are we overly optimistic? Perhaps. But if so, then perhaps you're overly pessimistic.


If there is to be change from within, the Park Service needs to attract employees and managers who embrace the agency's mission and want to make a change in the culture. Indeed, surveys -- both those from within the NPS and external sources -- indicate that a strong majority (80-85 percent, I believe) of the agency's roughly 20,000 employees already support that mission. But turnover is growing as more and more employees approach retirement. Attracting new employees dedicated to the mission and a healthy culture can be difficult when they constantly read that the Park Service is a dead-end agency.

We don't want you to stop commenting.
(my emphasis) But we think you've more than made your feelings known about what you think of the Park Service and its employees. The Traveler is not the forum for this continued condemnation.

You both have spoken highly of the Traveler in the past and the role it serves, and we certainly appreciate your support. But if we're to have any chance of changing the NPS culture and improving the park system, we need to build the audience and the dialog, not scare it away. Along that line, your input will do little good if the audience does not grow or if folks decide not to comment because they are weary of your criticisms.

That said, yes, Frank, your IP address was banned because you ignored the above-cited email and were trying to make a mockery out of the Traveler. While you certainly have a First Amendment right to vent your spleen, that right does not allow you to post whatever you wish within the cyber walls of the Traveler.

Again, as I noted in December, the Traveler is not the forum for continued condemnation of the National Park Service. If that's your goal, I wish you well in a forum of your own.

Kurt----I understood and respected your position. My hiatus had more to do with a lack of interest in continuing to comment since, as you noted, I had made my point about the bureaucratic mismanagement of the parks quite clear.

Once the discussion of what I feel is the most compelling problem facing the parks, the structure and management of the NPS, was off the table I knew that this forum was not the place to advance my agenda of reform. I have commented most recently due to the fact that other readers of your site have forwarded links to some of your articles which they thought I might wish to comment on. So I have.

I do not plan to become a regular or vociferous contributor once again but am grateful to have added my two cents to a couple of recent articles on subjects near and dear to my heart.

On another note I found it interesting that Bob Janiskee, a loyal and dedicated defender of the agency, had this to say about NPS managers in his piece on Nevada Barr's character Anna Pigeon: "Anna will cope with a maddeningly unresponsive bureaucracy. Any supervisors and up-the-line functionaries that Anna encounters in #15 will be part of the problem, not part of the solution. Anna knows that the Park Service is fundamentally a bureaucracy like any other, and her experiences with higher-ups have convinced her that these men and women are consummate CYA specialists. What’s a ranger to do when the people she answers to are spineless and clueless? Why, fend for herself, of course!"

I suppose that's as strong a condemnation of the status quo in the NPS as any that either Frank or I ever uttered in any of our previous posts, but coming from Bob it's merely an astute observation. I applaud him for his insight as it is right on the money.

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