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Stimulating the National Parks: Good For the Short-Term, But Then What?


How faithful will the Obama administration be to the national parks? Kurt Repanshek photo.

Over the coming months there will be a flurry of construction work across the National Park System thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But then what?

True, the $920 million contained in the legislation for the national parks is a nice chunk of change. But it also pales when compared to the $2.25 billion that the House of Representatives, under the urging of Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Washington, inserted into its version of the bill, and falls far, far shy of the estimated $9 billion maintenance backlog carried by the National Park Service.

Word of the parks' slice of the stimulus package somewhat surprisingly drew scant comment from Traveler readers. One comment that stood out, though, centered on why Congress wouldn't go beyond $920 million in economic stimulus funds for the parks, and questioned whether park advocacy groups dropped the ball on lobbying for the national parks because they were "perhaps too distracted by a guns issue that may not ultimately impact most park visitors to have successfully made that case..."

You no doubt could debate long and hard why the parks were valued at $920 million when it came to stimulus funds, with perhaps no satisfactory conclusion. But some thoughts surface:

* Did special interest groups miss the stimulus lobbying boat because they were too focused on the guns in the parks issue? I don't think so. Indeed, "green groups" as a whole were working hard long before the new year to raise the profile of public lands' needs in the eyes of the incoming administration. Back in November they published a 400-page document outlining and highlighting those needs.

* Not too long ago someone in one of those groups told me the National Park Systems' visibility problem stemmed from the fact that most folks view the park system as being in decent shape. And certainly, when you compare it to the nation's education or health care systems, I think that's probably accurate. Indeed, this is what Congressman Mark Souder, R-Indiana, who a few years ago spent a good deal of time trying to assess the condition of the national parks, told me at the time: "While the parks are not in pristine condition, they are not, as a whole, in imminent danger of being ruined. They are currently in a slow decline."

* If one looks back over the years, I think a trend that can be distilled without much effort is that when it comes to Congress and the park system, congressfolk love to see parks in their districts, but don't work equally hard to see those parks well-funded.

* Politicians think in election cycles. Remember the time Reps. Souder and Brian Baird, D-Washington, spent 18+ months trekking to national park locations around the country to take the pulse of the park system? Remember the report they prepared? Oh, wait, they never did prepare a report, because when the House turned Democrat Mr. Souder lost his chairmanship of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources and its resources, which he was tapping to study the plight of the parks. Why Mr. Baird didn't continue the review I don't know.

In talking to those with a keener feel for Congress, I'm told that the national parks actually did quite well with the $920 million they garnered through the stimulus legislation, particularly when you consider the other land-management agencies. Here's a look at how land-management agencies fared, courtesy of Fly, Rod and Reel Online:

Much of the funding is directed towards construction, repair or maintenance or habitat restoration on federal public lands. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is targeted to get $115 million for construction, while the Bureau of Land Management will receive $180 million and the National Park Service will receive $589 million. Resource and land-management programs also received substantial new funds including $165 million for FWS, $125 million for BLM and $146 million for NPS. A combined Capital Improvement and Maintenance fund for the U.S. Forest Service was allocated $650 million. In general, each agency will be using the stimulus funding in these accounts to address deferred maintenance and capital improvements, energy conservation, trail maintenance, watershed improvement, and more.

Both the BLM and USFS are slated to get funding for wildland fire management. The BLM will receive $15 million, whereas the USFS will receive $500 million. Of the USFS funding, half will be dedicated to hazardous fuel reduction, forest health protection, rehabilitation and hazard mitigation on federal lands, and the other half will be dedicated towards cooperative efforts on state and private lands. Funded through the Federal Highway Administration, the Department of Interior land management agencies also are to receive funding for road construction or improvement—$170 million for the NPS, $60 million for the USFS, and $10 million for the FWS.

Over at the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, Bill Wade is taking a wait-and-see attitude on how helpful the $920 million will be to the Park Service.

"I think it is too early to see how all this is going to sort out," says Mr. Wade. "My assumption is that some, maybe quite a bit, of the money can be directed to projects that are considered 'maintenance backlog.' It just depends on how the NPS sorts out the projects it can get underway in the context of the stimulus."

With the next few months going to be taken up by the Park Service, Interior Department officials, and Congress deciding how best to spend that stimulus in the National Park System, the larger question that remains is how the parks will fare under the Obama administration in the long run. The early signs are favorable:

* Interior Secretary Ken Salazar early in February directed the Bureau of Land Management to withdraw a series of controversial oil and gas leases near national parks in Utah, saying a more thorough environmental review was needed to determine whether their development would imperil Arches and Canyonlands national parks or Dinosaur National Monument.

* Secretary Salazar also called for a review of the Bush administration decision to allow national park visitors to arm themselves.

* The administration's proposed 2010 budget, though not yet available in detail, proposes a $500-$700 million boost from the current Interior Department appropriation, and would provide $100 million over-and-above the National Park Service's operations budget as well as $25 million that would be released when matched by private giving for park-related projects. (While that combined $125 million is a carryover of sorts from the Bush administration's Centennial Challenge plan to see the National Park Service gain an extra $3 billion by the agency's centennial in 2016, the Obama administration dislikes the "Centennial Challenge" name and is looking for a new slogan.)

Over at the National Parks Conservation Association, President Tom Kiernan so far is satisfied with what he's seeing from the new administration.

“In keeping with his campaign promise to address the critical needs of our national parks, President Obama has proposed a fiscal year 2010 budget for the national parks that continues the federal commitment toward restoring our national parks in time for the 2016 centennial of the National Park Service," said Mr. Kiernan. "The president’s budget proposal includes an increase of $100 million plus inflation to operate and maintain our national parks, funds the parks’ public-private partnership program, and offers a solid commitment to fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which would help to prevent inappropriate development inside national parks.

"... The Obama Administration clearly recognizes the importance of national parks to our economy, American jobs, quality of life, and future, and, as evident by this budget proposal, intends to help protect this legacy for our children and grandchildren.”

The trick from here on out will be to see that the administration continues to value the parks, and that will require Americans to let Congress and the administration know how they value them.

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Kurt, thanks for stimulating us with your thoughts on the funding realities the NPS faces. You are correct that the American people hold the future of the NPS and its mission in their hands. Many may say that's an obvious answer with an easy solution, but it presents a huge dilemma for the Service. I am reminded of the Legendary Service training video Bill Wade appeared in while he was superintendent at Shenandoah NP several years ago. In it, he reveals an important finding regarding visitor perceptions of the quality of NPS services. Basically, Wade reported that the key to raising visitor ratings of services - and programs - was to make sure all the bathrooms stalls had toilet paper. A good supply of TP translated into "better" resource education/interpretation, resource management, law enforcement, etc., etc. During my 36 years of service as a volunteer and employee in the NPS, I can assure you that the last thing to go was facility and grounds maintenance. In other words, the Service oversold the visiting public that everything was fine. The last thing to go was the well-stocked bathroom, until the really tough years set in. SO we are left with a public that thinks things are fine. Even today, the Visitor Survey Program, part of the Government Performance and Results Act from the early '90s, constantly reinforces that the vast majority of visitors are quite satisfied with the "quality" of their National Park Service -the only consistent weakness revealed in those surveys has been in concessions operations. Somewhere, there is a huge disconnect between what the NPS is and how it is perceived by most visitors. Part of the problem lies in the fact that most visitors only see developed or "public" areas and not the rest of the "iceberg." A better analogy is Disney World and the underground city that supports it. I could go on about the dependence on volunteers, cooperating associations, and external groups for interpretive services and resource management activities. In addition, resource education/interpretation itself seems to have lost much of its power of advocacy and direction and become a buffet where the visitor chooses his conclusion. I could go on, but this is not the time or place. I'll close by saying that the NPS somehow needs to develop a visitor interface in the park setting that gives them a realistic picture of conditions and needs without alarming them. If the Service can't do it, the NPCA, NPF or other groups need to do so. Adding about 20 positions to NPS's Legislative Branch would be a good start.

Money is always good, lets just hope that money will stay and not be eroded over time

"I could go on, but this is not the time or place. I'll close by saying that the NPS somehow needs to develop a visitor interface in the park setting that gives them a realistic picture of conditions and needs without alarming them. If the Service can't do it, the NPCA, NPF or other groups need to do so. Adding about 20 positions to NPS's Legislative Branch would be a good start." - Road Ranger

You make an excellent argument for more candid communication with park visitors. The Park Service has historically been underfunded in relation to their responsibilities in protecting and managing park resources and values. I recall that at Katmai NP&P the lion's share of the meager park budget was spent supporting about 50 acres surrounding Brooks Camp. There was little left over to apply to resource management and protection elsewhere in the park, including the coastal lands vulnerable to the poaching of park wildlife. As funding becomes ever tighter there will be a natural tendency to increasingly withdraw into pockets of visitor accommodations and to maintain a facade of everything being fine - even while critical needs go unmet.

All things considered, the current economic contraction/crisis is likely to be far deeper and last much longer than the typical recession. Indeed, this is a global phenomena, so we cannot rely on economic growth in other countries to help pull us out of our predicament. The "d" word is increasingly being used to describe the state of the world economy. The Park Service needs to proactively plan and prepare for the fallout of a prolonged financial decline. This includes setting realistic goals and establishing triage procedures to cope with the possible economic and even social impacts of the coming years.

Do you really think that adding 20 positions to the Legislative branch would have any added value? I'd rather have 20 more people to clean bathrooms.

20 more people cleaning restrooms would always be welcome, but let's not sell the legislative positions short. I had the privilege of working in the legislative division in the late 70's in the Service's DC headquarters. People in that division had the responsibilty of doing the research related to any pending legislative activity, maintaining effective relationships with the members of authorizing and appropriating committees, preparing NPS testimony for Congressional hearings, and coordinating the preparation of responses to Congressional inquiries. I sense that the NPS has lost its mojo on the Hill. A few more people doing the work that the legislative division used to do would certainly help regain it.

Rick Smith

Chris "Bugsyshallfall" wrote:

"Money is always good..."

Unless it isn't actually money, but is instead fiat currency printed out of thin air or borrowed from foreign creditors.

Fiat currency was anathema to American Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Jackson went so far as to pass the Specie Circular in 1836, which required all payment for government lands to be in gold or silver coin. The Austrian School of Economics has long held that no sound economy can long endure under fiat money, with prominent Austrian Economist Ludwig von Mises arguing in this book Human Action that, "What is needed for a sound expansion of production is additional capital goods, not money or fiduciary media. The credit boom is built on the sands of banknotes and deposits. It must collapse."

Fiat currency has also been criticized by some, such as G. Edward Griffin, for increasing the number and severity of boom-bust economic cycles, causing inflation, and allowing nations to initiate or prolong war.

Dumping fiat currency willy-nilly into a particular economic sector or area of the government inflates the money supply and leads to higher prices and costs, neither of which is good for the long-term preservation and maintenance of national parks.

Anonymous wrote:
Do you really think that adding 20 positions to the Legislative branch would have any added value?

It's doubtful that anything politicians do 3,000 miles from small parks like Lava Beds or Lassen will add any value; it will increase cost, though.

Rick Smith wrote:
I sense that the NPS has lost its mojo on the Hill.

All the more reason to remove park management from the kings of the Hill.

Yes, the Park Service may have done rather well compared to the Fish&Wildlife Service and BLM, but those agencies tend to have a lot fewer facilities and capital needs than does the National Park Service. And if you start making the comparison outside of land agencies, then the small stimulus boost for the National Park Service pales in comparison to the doubling of the usual budget for things like highways, education, and public transportation - let alone the massive infusion of dollars into the high-speed rail program (reportedly done at the personal insistence of President Obama as part of his "legacy" - which I guess makes it unfortunate that National Parks weren't a priority for that legacy.)

At the end of the day, given the sheer size of budget increases being handed out to other programs, the only way I see to reasonably conclude that the National Parks "did quite well", is if one believes that despite all the press releases about maintenance backlog, at the end of the day the National Park Service simply didn't have the management wherewithal to absorb any larger of a funding increase in a short period of time. That may very well be the case, and if so, it would certainly be a sobering thought that should certainly color our expectations for appropriate NPS budgets for the next several years.

Otherwise, if one doesn't believe that, and one honestly believes that the NPS should be receiving much more money towards the maintenance backlog each year in the immediate future, then I see few alternatives other than to admit that the stimulus package was a disappointment, and to start thinking about "what went wrong" and why despite the "Teddy" election campaign this year, National Parks still aren't a priority, even when there are trillions of dollars to be spent, and a Democratic Congress and President doing the spending...

To Sabittis:

"What Went Wrong?"

Well, for starters, we have had two NPS Directors in a row who spent their time teaching the NPS staff to cut out ESSENTIAL parts of the Mission, rather than fighting for the needed funding. NEVER has the NPS had such listless and ill-prepared leadership.

Beneath these Directors, the staff responsible for the NPS budget and the Congressional staff constantly hammered the parks to find ways to live within these impossible restrictions, rather than take the kind of aggressive action the great Directors (like George Hartzog) and and the previously-competent NPS and Hill staff took to make the case to get the needed money.

It is not rocket science to make the national park areas a national priority. Americans believe the most important places that tell the American story are important, and it is one of the easiest selling jobs in Government.

Rick Smith and others are right, of course, that the NPS could use good staff in Washington to make the case to Congress and to all the Interest Groups in Washington. But, numbers alone will not matter if the NPS is not willing to take the bit in the teeth and make a real effort. A big Washington staff that just kow-tows to the geeks in OMB (who get brownie points for shackling rather than promoting the government agencies under their thumb) is no use at all. We need patriots again in the Washington Office of the NPS, people who believe that Congress meant it when it passed the 1916 Act establishing the NPS, people who are dedicated to making sure the parks have what they need to carry out that Mission.

But if we have anything like a repetition of the last two Directors, and the kind of people they appointed to key positions, don't expect a handful of legislative staff to make the sun rise.

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