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A Solution to the National Park Service's Funding Woes Lies Within Each of Us


What's this vista worth to you? Grand Teton National Park, Ansel Adams photo via the National Archives.

A few weeks ago, a colleague and I were discussing the financial plight of the National Park System and I wondered aloud how it possibly could be improved. After all, this country has enormous bills, starting with those from the Iraq war and running on down to Social Security and the national infrastructure, just to name the most obvious.

And then there are the investments we should be making, such as paying down the national debt and investing in alternative energy and a cleaner environment in general, not to mention providing a better health-care system for the country.

Up against those needs and commitments, how could we expect the federal government to be able to adequately fund the national parks, which are being dragged down by a staggering maintenance backlog last estimated at around $8 billion as well as an annual shortfall the National Parks Conservation Association pegs at somewhere between $750 million and $800 million?

Well, Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley has some ideas. They’re ideas that are not terribly radical and which should be given wider review and serious consideration. And they’re rooted, quite simply, in how we – that’s you and me – view the parks today and how we’d like to view them tomorrow.

Dr. Pitcaithley is a former chief historian for the National Park Service, and so knows a little something about the agency and government funding. Now a history professor at New Mexico State University, he outlined his funding ideas a couple of months ago at a Park Service conference for Comprehensive Resource Stewardship and granted me permission to relay them here.

Regular Traveler readers might recall an essay of Dr. Pitcaithley's that was highlighted on this site last fall. In it he argued that the Park Service’s budget, currently running at about $2.3 billion, should be at least $5 billion or $6 billion to adequately meet the agency’s needs. In justifying that investment, Dr. Pitcaithley points not just to the recreational value of the National Park System, but to its educational, scientific, and preservation missions. Cast another way, when we fund the National Park Service we’re not just investing in trees and mountains and gorgeous landscapes, but in both this country’s past and its future, in both its culture and its knowledge base.

Unfortunately, we seem to have lost sight of those values and possibly have begun to take the national parks for granted, figuring they're well taken care of now and will be tomorrow.

“The chronic under-funding of the National Park Service is not now and has not been for the past 50 years a matter of money – it is a matter of priorities!” Dr. Pitcaithley told those who attended that conference back in April. “Five billion dollars amounts to 0.002 percent of the president’s 2008 proposed budget.”

For the sake of comparison, while the National Park Service slogs along with its insufficient budget, the Defense Department is funded at roughly $550 billion, the professor points out. Just one B-2 bomber costs $2 billion, he adds for emphasis.

“Do you really think the American people would notice if this country’s military industrial complex held one less bomber than it does today and that those funds were transferred to the National Park Service?” he wonders. “The president and Congress took less than ten minutes to determine that the economy needed an economic stimulus package totaling $150 billion. Do you think anyone would have complained if it were $148 billion? And the resulting $2 billion saving were given to the National Park Service?”

Over at the U.S. Marine Corps, Dr. Pitcaithley points to the Osprey aircraft that cost $110 million apiece. “They are currently being sent to Iraq even though military analysts believe they don’t work as designed,” he says. “Here’s the punch line: Several branches of the military are planning to purchase 400 of these flawed aircraft! Four hundred times $110 million equals $44 billion!”

The money is there. The problem, though, is we let Congress get away with more than a few decisions that are terribly misguided. The problem is that there are not enough advocates for the National Park System.

“It’s not a matter of money, it’s a matter of priorities and the National Park Service over the years has not developed a constituency that will lobby on behalf of it. The National Park Conservation Association is simply not enough and clearly no match for other park interest groups. If you doubt that in any way, consider the recent … effort by the National Rifle Association to change decades-long NPS policy on guns in parks,” says Dr. Pitcaithley. “A goofy idea by any measurement, but one that went unopposed except by a handful of editors.

“In the world I envision for the National Park Service, the 50 congressmen who endorsed the (gun) proposal would have been instantly balanced by 50 congressmen and women who opposed it – delegates in Congress who had been cultivated over the years to support various pieces of legislation that benefit the national parks and, through the parks, the American public. Where are those congressmen and women? Why don’t we do that? The Department of Defense passes up no opportunity and spares no expense in cultivating congressmen to support its programs. Why doesn’t the National Park Service do the same?”

When you realize that a single B-2 bomber retails for $2 billion, is it really far-fetched to want to believe that the National Park System with its 391 units stretching from Acadia National Park to Zion National Park is worth at least three bombers?

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Why does it always come down to military spending? While it's true that the amount of money the National Park Service is asking for, amounts roughly to the cost of 3 B-2 aircraft, do we really want to sacrifice National security for National Parks? One nuclear or chemical bomb pointed at Southern California could wipe out 3 or 4 National Parks (and all the people that use them) for years. Fight for the money to protect our National Parks, but find a way to provide it, without taking money from National Security.

Here's a unique idea. Charge hikers for a garbage disposal fee. It seems Americans have forgotton about the effects of litter on a natural habitat, and what it costs the parks to clean it up. If everyone took the responsiblity to leave "only footprints", it would save the parks millions of dollars a year.

God forbid that ones' sense of security would/is tied up to less B-2 aircrafts!! Lets deal with the reality of the need NOW for funding the parks. The basic services that parks/ had as a given could return ( like staff to clean rest rooms or the GS4 summer worker(s) to work at a visitor center or give a out door program.) Perhaps the space program could use less $$ (too) . it seems we havent taken care of this planet so well...why worry about going elsewhere! Volunteer staff in the parks have been necessary and appreciated yet there still is the need for historical building repairs, clean visitor services, and those high visable summer rangers( whose pay scale ought not to be breaking any ones budget). Encouraging park litter clean up days is a helpful idea. Having park staff to clean the public areas may show that the park cares.

To answer your question Anon, it's mostly due to our DOD being by FAR the largest single source of wasted monies in the federal budget. Also, due to the impunity in which they operate, they have annual budgets that are larger than many countries around the globe. Eliminating $5 billion annually from their budget would scarcely be noticed, let alone cause any "lack" of security, from a military perspective at least.

The amount of B2, 117A's and the like does squat for my internal feeling of security. They were never intended as a means of internal security, straffing the streets of your local major metropolis, dropping nukes like hard candy at a parade. With 2 exceptions, the need for such actions would never arise. And if the Chinese attack with any real intent, all your B2's aren't going to provide you with "security" anyway. As long as we insist on permitting any and every idiot onto our shores, legally or not, and then "losing" them in our society, in conjunction with refusing to deport illiegal entrants because "we need to low-end work force", then our national "security" exists in name only. By the way, we've yet to invent a chemical device substantial enough to "wipe out" 3-4 national parks. Or even one for that matter. Inconvenience visitors for a period, indeed, but hardly eliminate it from the face of the earth.

This is a good post. There certainly has been a lack of political will on behalf of the Parks.

I would just caution that it is not simply enough to argue that $5 billion is only .002% of the Federal budget, and so $5 billion could be diverted to the Parks "without anyone noticing." $5 billion is still *five billion* dollars, or put another way, $5,000,000,000. $5 billion works out to about $43 of each of the 117 million taxpayers in the US. And certainly, Washington is just swarming with other interest groups that would love to get $5 billion for *their* priorities - whether its $5 billion for flood relief, bailing out the Highway Trust Fund, more childhood vaccinations, more research into alternative fuels - you name it.

It might also be helpful to consider who the advocates are for some of the things that do get funded in Washington. Yes, defense spending has its share of "hawks" in support of it, but they seem to also benefit from the distribution of military bases and defense contractors. For example, if I remember correctly, the famous (or infamous) Rep."B-1 Bob" Dornan of California was not just a "hawk" - but also represented the District where those aircraft were to be built. Its the old adage that "all politics is local" yet again. I don't actually know for sure, but I wonder how many representatives of Districts containing major National Parks are also strong advocates for those Parks? And if not, I wonder what role the sometimes tense relationshp between the National Parks and the gateway communities plays a role in that.

Dr. Picaithley also correctly cites that the NPCA is clearly not enough - but then he curiously cites the "Guns in Parks" issue as Exhibit A. I've been somewhat mildly suprised that the NPCA has decided to make "Guns in Parks" such a centerpiece issue over the past several month. 2nd Amendment Issues are one of the most-divisive in the country, right up there with abortion and the Iraq War - and a good half of this country generally comes down on either side. (Some would even argue that its slightly more than half on the side of "gun rights" (whatever that means) - after all, when was the last Presidential Candidate to capaign on greater gun control?) So at best, this "Guns in Parks" issue is a matter of persuading a good 50%-or-so of the people that are generally in favor gun rights to make a exception to their general inclinations in the case of National Parks. At worst, this large-scale campaign turned off many of these people from the larger idea of becoming advocates for the National Parks - perhaps reinforcing the perception that advocates for the Parks are on the "other side" of the partisan divide in this country.

If Dr. Picaithley is right that the current coalition of Park Advocates is inadequate to the task of enacting real change on behalf of the Parks, then that coalition is going to need to be expanded. Defining that coalition on the basis of maintaining gun control policies, however, seems unlikely to accomplish that task. What other issues might expand that coalition? I've suggested above that gateway communities and "Park neighbors" would ordinarily be one place to look - but obviously there are decades of fraught relationships there. If I wanted to play devil's advocate, I might suggest that the "bicycling community" could be another addition - perhaps even looing beyond the mountain-biking community, but also perhaps investigating bicycling as an option in the "National Historic Trails" program (which currently focuses mainly on driving tours, with some exceptions). I definitely don't have all the answers (I may not even have some of them), but if the description of the symptoms here is accurate, then it may well be that the proper solution is finding out how to expand the coalition of Park Advocates.

This is a brilliant post by Sabattis.

Although I do not agree with some of the selected potential Park Advocates -- I am still too bruised by the dishonest behavior of the NRA over the establishment of the parklands in Alaska -- but he challenges us to think out of the box, and we must.

We should try to triangulate the philosophy being imported with the Advocate, and consider how this will affect the NPS of the future. But Sabattis is right that we need to be daring in our consideration. The problem with the Picaithley-type park advocate is we have heard all of this kind of bland advocacy before, and the truth is it only thrills those who already believe it.

Meantime, the NPS is trying to limit some of the real efforts to expand its constituencies -- for example the major effort going on right now to turn one national heritage area against another. Heritage areas were initially seen as cost effective ways to protect whole landscapes without excluding the existing populations and practices that made an area special. English Heritage and the british National Trust have had great success having the equivalent of permanent national parks that take in whole landscapes and populations, with minimal expense, and the idea was to import something similar to the USA, to provide provide permanent protection with Park interpretation and management ethics, and new park strategies such as Rivers and Trails, or state-side land acquisition and national landmarks programs. [From the start some areas of opposition to heritage areas, such as the NPS budget office, immediately insisted that heritage areas never could be as significant to the Nation as national parks, and never should be permanent, even though it could easily be demonstrated that heritage areas could leverage very small amounts of money very efficiently, and often collaborated with important constituencies that previously were almost never on the side of national parks. these people managed to do some damage, such as confusing which areas were nationally significant and the equal of national parks with those places that were not, and also the enemies tried to get the NPS as far as possible from the program so NPS would not benefit, but so far the program and its constituencies kept expanding.]

But just as the US programs has begun to take off, NPS and some pals in the appropriations committee staffs are trying to pit new or potential heritage areas against already-established-heritage-areas, by limiting the overall funding and having the NPS distribute the funding. Previously, congress determined ultimately funding for each area, just as congress now determines how much money will go into each NPS construction project. By restricting the overall amount, and getting the NPS to distribute the money it means either there will be no new areas, or the older areas will have to fall off the back of the truck. As a result, we can expect that the Alliance for Heritage Areas will start opposing new heritage initiatives.

This is the sort of dividing of constituencies that is killing the NPS. NPS needs, as Sabattis points out, to find energetic ways to expand its constituencies, and people who love parks need to support these efforts.

I think you are missing the point. 3 bombers will not be missed, it is our national parks that will be. And on a side note if it is national security that you are concerned with, consider this ...where WERE those bombers when not 1, not 2 or even 3 planes were hijacked and flown into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center? Do you think that if we had not given ANY money to national parks and had 3 more B-2 bombers than 9/11 would not have happened? That is kind of what you are saying.

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