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"Core Ops" Budgeting in the National Park System Goes Silently Into the Night


The "core ops" approach to budgeting cost Dinosaur National Monument two of the three positions on its paleontology staff. Were they "core" to the park's mission? NPS photo.

Editor's note: There's nothing sexy about budgeting in the National Park Service, and most park goers likely could care less about the various decisions that are made when it comes to prioritizing spending in the parks. But learning how your tax dollars are being spent to maintain "America's Best Idea," as the parks have often been called, should be of interest because it directly impacts how you can enjoy those parks. The following story, while undoubtedly of interest primarily to those who work for the NPS, examines whether prudent decisions are being made when it comes to the care-taking of these national treasures.

A succinct, four-paragraph memo from National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis two weeks ago spurred an outpouring of comments from Park Service employees and marked, potentially, a sea change in how park superintendents go about budgeting for their parks. But is it something the general public should take note of?

For many in the Park Service's Intermountain Region, mention of a "core ops" review conjured images of a slash-and-burn approach to budget management. Those most familiar with it tell of orders from the Intermountain office that they not only determine exactly what is "core" to sustaining the mission of their park, but also that they approach that task with the understanding that they'll have to slash at least one-third of their budget.

Positions were cut, some say, not because they were unrelated to the park's mission, but simply to reduce the payroll. In more than a few cases parks were presented with lists of what programs they were to terminate, one long-time Park Service employee, who requested anonymity out of concern of retaliation, told the Traveler.

"We were the innocents being led to slaughter,” that individual said. "There was a pre-determined outcome."

And yet, while core ops was sweeping throughout the region's parks, the staff in the Intermountain office -- which oversees 91 units of the National Park System in eight states -- was rampantly growing, critics of the program maintain.

A veil of silence has fallen over both the work of core ops and its demise. While Director Jarvis's memo said he was bringing a halt to core ops because the approach failed to use "unbiased data and analysis to make informed decisions," Park Service officials in Washington declined to elaborate or point to examples where those failures occurred, saying simply that the memo "spoke for itself."

Perhaps it does, for the memo's very first sentence says that cores ops data was biased, that field managers were not empowered to do their jobs, and that justification for decisions was not always strong.

"As director I want to emphasize use of management tools that empower managers with unbiased data and analysis to make informed decisions, improve the justification and presentation of our budgets, and improvement the management of our financial resources. Based on extensive feedback I have received from field managers I believe that the Core Operations process fails to meet these requirements," he wrote.

Also declining to discuss the memo was Intermountain Regional Director Mike Snyder, the architect of core ops. The regional office also refused to defend the approach by identifying cost savings to the Park Service.

Without that comment and data, it's hard to say whether the core ops approach was flawed from the start, or whether it was a prudent system for budget prioritization that was wielded vindictively, as many of those who commented on the original Traveler story alleged.

Starving the Beast?

Park goers, whose taxes support the national parks, should have that information so they can determine whether the parks they enjoy were being mercilessly slashed of the staff and revenues they needed to be adequately maintained and operated. That question arises, in part, because a reported fan of the core ops approach was then-Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett. Before joining the Interior Department, Ms. Scarlett had been executive director of the Reason Foundation, where she called for "incentive-based programs to encourage private sector stewardship of our land and natural resources."

At the same time, under the Bush administration the "starve the beast" concept came to life, a process in which reduced government funding presumably would result in private businesses taking over more and more aspects of running, in this case, national parks and, along the way, profiting from it. The specter of user fees also gained momentum, with more and more "amenity" fees arising in national parks for everything from ranger-led tours to backcountry permits.

It's against this philosophical backdrop -- that the federal government should wean itself of running national parks and charge individuals more and more to enjoy them -- that core ops came to life.

While Regional Director Snyder declined repeated requests to discuss the merits of core ops, back in April 2006 he developed a series of notes to explain the budgeting approach. Here are some passages from those notes:

If a park determines that it is performing activities that are not core, then it is in a position to direct those resources to activities that are. Too, if the park determines that there are ways to be more efficient or effective in the way it gets work done, then it can utilize any of those savings for core functions. Any savings achieved through realizing efficiencies stays in the park.

On the other hand, a park may determine that it is directing all its activities toward core needs and find that those activities are being done as efficiently and effectively as possible. It may also determine that, despite this, there are still core needs that remain unmet. At that point, it has the basis for a strong, credible request for additional resources to meet those core needs.

Past Efforts to Fund the 'Core Mission' of Parks

All businesses and organizations need to be fiscally fit. Indeed, the Park Service long has realized this. In October 1981, during another fiscally challenging period, then-Park Service Director Russ Dickenson directed his regional directors and superintendents to determine "what basic functions must NPS perform, and how much do they cost..." The wording of his memo sounds quite similar to what Regional Director Snyder put down on paper in 2006. Here's what Mr. Dickenson asked of his managers:

We have been given an opportunity to prepare for the (Interior) Department and for the Office of Management and Budget a comprehensive assessment of the Service-wide resources necessary to carry out successfully the essential functions of each National Park System unit at a minimum acceptable level of performance. The term 'Core Mission for each unit' means precisely that.

Each unit in the System is being asked to develop a Core Mission package. This Core Mission package must be formulated so as to provide management at all levels of the Service the information needed to make informed decisions about possible reallocations and mandatory cuts in resources. A Core Mission package which does not meet this objective will be unacceptable. Similarly, a Core Mission package which is construed by assuming that historic funding patterns will be maintained, or by assuming that existing base-funding levels will be maintained, also will be unacceptable.

I cannot emphasize too strongly to each of you that we must address only essential activities in the Core Mission process. In other words, this process is designed to establish what tasks are essential to the central purpose of the unit and must be carried out, and also to establish the lowest level of resources adequate to carry out each such task at a minimum level of acceptability...

Bill Wade, who was raised in Mesa Verde National Park and had a 34-year National Park Service career that included a stint as superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, has been a harsh critic of core ops "because it emphasized 'efficiency' (saving money) for the most part, ignored 'effectiveness' (doing what is essential to meet the mission of the park or NPS) -- despite its title."

The 1981 directive from Mr. Dickenson, recalled Mr. Wade, took the approach that "carrying out the mission was central to the exercise -- unlike the way core ops evolved."

What Did Core Ops Achieve?

While the approach Mr. Snyder laid out in that April 2006 memo certainly sounds prudent, more than a few of those who work in the Intermountain Region parks take issue with what the regional director said and what actually happened. Some park managers were pressured to identify positions that could be terminated, even after a case was made that they were core to the park, the Traveler has been told.

During the past two weeks the Intermountain office reversed course on a request from the Traveler for copies of annual reports for FY2006 and FY2007 that pointed to the results of core ops budgeting in the region, and also declined to share a briefing document that had been prepared to tout the program's successes. An obtained report on FY2005 core ops work, though, pointed to the following "accomplishments":

* The deputy superintendent job at Rocky Mountain National Park, which sees more than 2.7 million visitors a year, was left vacant. "Core activities assigned to a division chief. Impact: reduced 1 FTE (full-time-equivalent); dollars not spent, $120,000." But the position wasn't vacant long, and in October 2008 Tony Schetzsle, previously the deputy regional director to Mr. Snyder, moved into the Rocky Mountain National Park deputy superintendent post at a salary at least $12,000 higher than the $120,000 cut through the FY05 core ops reduction; (Oddly, the position was the very same job Mr. Schetzsle once held at Rocky Mountain before it was initially left vacant);

* Combined the position of administrative officer and special projects officer at San Antonio Mission National Historic Site and eliminated the "gardener position since it was determined not to be core essential" for a total reduction of two full-time positions and a savings of $150,000 that was reallocated to "cover no-net-loss ranger position and other higher priority activities";

* Rocky Mountain National Park "replaced old snowplows with ones that throw 10 times more snow. Less time and increased employee safety";

* Zion National Park looked at the feasibility of converting the Kolob District to a seasonal facility, a move that would reduce the payroll by three full-time employees and free up roughly $100,000 for use elsewhere;

* Grand Canyon National Park looked at reducing its vehicle fleet by 30 percent, a move expected to save $240,000;

* Rocky Mountain National Park would generate $75,000 by charging for backcountry permits, a move that would free up money in the park's operations budget for use elsewhere;

* Big Bend National Park looked to generate $5,000 by recovering the costs "for river trips from researchers and cooperating agencies";

* Glacier National Park looked at decommissioning its potable water systems at three campgrounds, a move that would require campers to bring their own water but also would eliminate the need for the park "to monitor and test water."

Those are just some of the examples provided by the FY2005 document. Another, more disconcerting, example arose early in 2008 when it became known that the superintendent at Dinosaur National Monument decided to terminate two of the three positions in her paleontology division as a result of core ops, a move that many ridiculed for being made in a unit of the National Park System that existed because of its rich paleontological resources.

As to whether the death of core ops represents a sea change in how the Park Service develops its budgets and identifies what truly is core to running its parks remains to be seen. Some regional offices are continuing to use the core ops model, though reportedly tweaked to remove the heavy handed approach that one-third of a park's budget is unnecessary, while some parks in the Intermountain Region reportedly are continuing the original core ops approach despite Director Jarvis's memo.

As these budget decisions directly affect the public's enjoyment of the national parks, it's a matter park goers should follow.

Core ops postscript: On March 30, 2009, President Obama approved H.R. 146, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, as Public Law 111-11.  Title VI, Subtitle D of the act directs the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to implement a comprehensive paleontological resource management program on federal lands. The requirements in Subtitle D will provide increased protection, enhanced management tools, and greater scientific and public understanding of NPS fossil resources.

The Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (PRPA) attached to the 2009 Omnibus Bill requires the agencies to 1) promulgate regulations as soon as practical; 2) develop plans for fossil inventories, monitoring, and scientific and educational use; 3) manage and protect paleontological resources on Federal land using scientific principles and expertise; 4) establish a program to increase public awareness about the significance of paleontological resources; 5) allow casual collection of common invertebrate and plant fossils on BLM, Forest Service and Bureau of Reclamation lands where consistent with the laws governing those lands; 6) manage fossil collection via specific permitting requirements; 7) curate collected fossils in accordance with the Act’s requirements; 8) implement the Act’s criminal and civil enforcement, penalty, reward and forfeiture provisions; and 9) protect information about the nature and specific location of fossils where warranted.  The Act authorizes appropriations necessary to carry out these requirements.

A coordinated federal approach is planned for implementing many of the Act’s provisions, including the development of regulations.  The NPS lead office in the implementation of the Act will be the Geologic Resources Division (GRD).  GRD will work closely with parks and regions throughout this process. Based on available data, 213 units are known to contain fossil resources either in-situ, in museum collections, and/or in a cultural context [see list below].  This number is likely to increase as future inventories are completed.  NPS museum collections contain more than 445,000 cataloged paleontological specimens. 

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Gee Kurt, I guess there was no smoking gun was there? Nope, just a change in leadership and the changes that always accompany that situation. Perhaps you can move on now to some real issues.

Yes, the Dinosaur example is especially appropriate to the ridiculous Core Ops initiative, but the harsh reality remains that something should be done to get permanent staffing budgets in line.

In the business world (I come from retail), the higher up the ladder you move the more money you make, BUT the harder you have to work to justify your salary. This is apparently NOT true in the NPS, from what I've seen during the few short years I have been fortunate enough to be an NPS employee.
An efficiency program is ALWAYS prudent and appropriate to control a large organizational budget , but it seems to me that many NPS sites are top heavy in "management" because they have too many permanent employees that continue to climb the GS ladder (if only because of time spent as a permanent federal employee), not with the goal to better manage their site, but solely to make more money for themselves. What you end up with is a staff full of "managers" that have no staff on the ladder below them to manage. And few services to offer the visitors whose taxes pay their salaries.
The current park I work in seems to hire permanent employees based on nepotism and personalities, and not on abilities, resource management issues, or visitor service needs, thus compounding the permanent staffing problem. And guess what? Visitor services here are shrinking, beloved programs have disappeared, intake opportunities for newer, fresher NPS permanent employees are virtually non-existent. And all any of them can do is bight the hand that feeds them for not endlessly increasing the budget that has lined their pockets for so many years, rather than get out from behind their "managerial" duties and go contact visitors themselves. The resources here are suffering, and the visitors are suffering. But no one will volunteer that it is because they are part of inflated permanent staff.

It's unfortunate that a hatchet like Core Ops was wielded to address the gross inefficiencies in NPS permanent staffing, but something needs to be done. If you ask me, the cuts need to made on the top third of the staffing ladders, not the bottom third, for that's where the grossest inefficiencies exist. Staffing cuts of some sort do need to be made if NPS sites are ever going to get their budgets in line. (I would venture a cautious guess that every critic of Core Ops would be just as upset by a more "fair" and humanistic approach to realistic staffing budgets because it would mean a reduction in force, and thus more work for themselves.)

I think there are many newer employees such as myself, seasonal and otherwise, that can relate stories of gross over-staffing. I've worked at small historic sites, at a small recreational site, and at a huge "screaming resource" site, and the amount of permanent staff deemed "necessary" to manage any site seems to be constant across the service, regardless of acreage or size of the resource. It's counter-intuitive to budgeting practice.

Solution? Better focused evaluation of those put in charge of managing the NPS, from the top down, and holding managers accountable for the permanent staffing decisions they make.
How is this accomplished? Getting the decision makers (national, regional, and local) out in the field as a compulsory part of their responsibilities, to actually see the results of their decisions. (This would go a long way to assuage the acrimony of site-based employees for regional and national management.) And hitting them where it hurts most for bad decisions, their salaries. Is this type of business solution to a business-based problem doable in a federal agency? My cynicism says no, but I am hopeful that common sense in such matters would ultimately prevail.

Hopefully this end of Core Ops is just the first step towards creating a better service that is run humanly, intuitively, and sensibly.

This is not a typical case, or analysis. It is contradictory. First NPSfan says essential programs like visitor services are declining, and then it says parks are over staffed.

The main reason parks don't have the money or the key needed staff:
-- structured increases to expenses
-- including salaries and other unfunded or incompletely funded congressional mandates,
-- & passing costs, that used to be absorbed by central budgets, directly to parks,
-- accretion of responsibilities (& pay) for remaining workers is sometimes required when those workers take on greater responsibilities because of expanded responsibilities because other employees were hired, or because new laws require expanded expertise
-- ridiculous and wasteful reporting processes etc etc can require administrative staff whose FTE otherwise could be available where the rubber meets the road.

It is true that the inability to hire new intake employees means many parks have older populations of permanent employees, with, therefore, disproportionally higher grades.

As previous commenters made clear, contrary to NPSfan comments, critical positions were being cut via core ops. Patrol rangers were being cut, where the it was known the cuts would lead to poaching. Key resource specialists were being eliminated in parks with those specific professional requirements.

My experience, unlike NPSfan's, is that most parks have high quality staff. It is extremely disadvantageous to hire incompetent people on the buddy system: managers need competent people to get the work done, and they must get the work done. You only hurt yourself when you hire people who can't get the work done, so within the available applicants, you hire the best.

It is true that the poor top political leadership of the NPS over recent years, and the frustrations with an avalanche of silly reporting requirements, HAS meant that many very experience and competent park managers & program managers have chosen to leave the NPS, and I believe that loss of expertise is extremely unfortunate; perhaps there are experience gaps in some parks.

Unlike the first anonymous I applaud Kurt for covering this - and the numerous comments to the first post give creedence to the fact that it was a very real issue.

Core Ops was an abysmal disaster - but alas, it was but just one of the many flavors of the month that come and go wirth the political winds. The difference with Core Ops is that parks actually lost positions and people actually lost jobs. As others have said, it was a mentality where people like Mike Snyder knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

d-2 is correct - it's all about leadership - real leadership.

So perfectly well said last commenter. "the cost of everything and the value of nothing".

It is not impossible for parks to be overstaffed while services and programs fall by the wayside (pun intended). A giant staff does not necessarily equate with increased programs and visitor services... all a giant staff guarantees is a large payroll. That was my exact point: over staffing soaks up way too much payroll, funds that can used wisely elsewhere.
Core Ops was not the way to address problems, but nowhere in your refutation of my comment do you suggest how this can be done. Perhaps you do not think over inflated staffs are a bad thing.
Long time soakers of budget funds, producing little to show for their bloated salaries, are who my comments address, not the critical staff that were victimized by Core Ops.

NOwhere do I suggest adding staff, at any level. I just think that the managers already in place should manage their personnel as well as their paperwork. I don't see lots of in-person, face-to-face management of personnel in the parks I've worked in. But I do see lots of higher GS personnel sitting at their desks, avoiding staff AND visitor contact, while they find ways to stay glued to their desks.

NOwhere in my comments do I suggest that critical positions be cut. But evaluation of what is critical to a park's mission needs to be done, continually. Again I agree that Core Ops was not the way to address this problem, but some way should be found. And sometimes that means a job is lost.
If you were to visit the park I currently work in (the location of which I will not disclose because the staff there is retaliatory, especially when a light is shown on their incredibly inefficient and wasteful use of taxpayer dollars) you will find a permanent Interp staff whose size rivals far larger parks. Yet they produce a mere pittance of services and programs. Why? They would certainly blame it on their park leadership putting up roadblocks to their efforts. Their legions have grown over the years, with hiring based on personalities and friendships, rather than what is core to the mission of the park.
Are you suggesting, d-2, that this is okay?

"The deputy superintendent job at Rocky Mountain National Park, which sees more than 2.7 million visitors a year, was left vacant. "Core activities assigned to a division chief. Impact: reduced 1 FTE (full-time-equivalent); dollars not spent, $120,000." But the position wasn't vacant long, and in October 2008 Tony Schetzsle, previously the deputy regional director to Mr. Snyder, moved into the Rocky Mountain National Park deputy superintendent post at a salary at least $12,000 higher than the $120,000 cut through the FY05 core ops reduction; (Oddly, the position was the very same job Mr. Schetzsle once held at Rocky Mountain before it was initially left vacant)"

Can someone explain this to me?

This would appear to be an indictment of the Core Ops decision making process if the position was deemed non-vital and then brought back (at a higher salary) in such a short period of time.

Many comments to the previous article called into question the method by which Core Ops was employeed and the presence of shady agreements and personality driven decision making. This looks like a green and grey version of a golden parachute.

Just as Watergate taught the country to "follow the money" to uncover the scandal - the same principle can be applied to the inner circles of the IMR with tentacles to certain closely connected national parks ..... Regarding the above discussions on core ops achieving savings at Rocky when Mr. Schetzsle left Rocky from his position as deputy superintendent. He moved to Canyonlands for a promotion from a GS 14 at Rocky to a GS 15 at Canyonlands. The NPS paid for his move as is the policy. After being at Canyonlands for a relatively short period of time, Mike Snyder selected Mr. Schetzsle for the deputy regional director position in Denver. The NPS paid for the move. Mr. Schetzsle who had run one of the earliest core ops exercises at Canyonlands became the principle official carrying out Mike Snyder's dictates and aggressively moved core ops out in earnest to the parks of the IMR. His tactics in executing core ops were often extremely harsh. After working as deputy regional director, Mr. Schetzsle received a pretty sweet deal from Mike Snyder to authorize him to transfer without competition to the place he desired to return to, into his former job as deputy superintendent at Rocky Mountain NP. NPS most likely paid for the move. During the span of time including Mr. Schetzsle's previous tenure at Rocky and his subsequent tenure in the IMR, efforts were made in Washington by key senior officials to help Rocky MT. N.P. to receive salary COLAs such as Denver and other high cost of living areas have. That COLA was established for Estes Park and Rocky Mt. employees. One cannot dispute that living in Estes Park is more expensive than many national park small gateway communities. However the argument could be made that several national parks are in similar circumstances but it took serious insider efforts to achieve this COLA for Rocky. Some of us have ideas about how this came about. As Mr. Schetszle returned to Rocky Mt. into his former position as deputy superintendent, he was fortunate to do so at the higher salary amount afforded through the COLA. A rather nice perk and surely no core ops savings now for Rocky Mt.
Then there are the costs associated with two to three(plus) years worth of the IMR core ops team's extensive travel and associated costs with running the "core ops workshops" across the intermountain west and in some circumstances in other venues including presentations for the Washington office and the department. The tab was believed to be in the millions. Add to that the forced moves of many employees (NPS paid for these moves) and the close down costs for many operations (for example Santa Fe). Add to that the buy out and incentive retirement benefits paid to employees encouraged/required to leave NPS (VSIP/VERA)- millions spent. Many believe the overall costs to carry out core ops did not save the taxpayers any money in the long run. Other money trails include travel, international travel, with some of this travel by close professional buddies, and at times members of the same family. The same circle of buddies often were the approving officials for travel or were wired into those at the department in the former administration who approved international travel. Other money trails include various monetary awards and non competitive promotions and paid moves. Then add the costs of all the new positions created or filled in the IMR regional office over the last two years after the parks were gutted. It would be staggering to do the math on all of this. The core ops program, for what it was touted to be, was a complete failure no matter how much some in IMR will defend it. More tragically it ruined a good portion of what was once a legendary agency filled with dedicated employees. I am glad I am no longer in the agency having been driven out by core ops. Good luck to those left in the IMR.

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