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Senator Coburn Blames Congress, Bloated National Park Service, For State Of National Park System


In a voluminous report, Sen. Tom Coburn blames Congress and the National Park Service for the state of the National Park System.

Just as important programs like Medicare and Social Security have been raided for decades to pay for politicians’ pet projects, Washington has also plundered the National Park Service budget to create new parks and programs with little national significance. -- Sen. Tom Coburn.

Our National Park System has become a bloated, underfunded, kowtowing shadow of the ideal for which it was created, according to U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, who lays out his case in a report that casts a withering portrait of Congress as a poor overseer.

In that 208-page report, Parked! How Congress' Misplaced Priorities Are Trashing Our National Treasures, the Republican from Oklahoma blames years of political self-aggrandizement for a park system that carries an $11.5 billion maintenance backlog and which is showing serious signs of decay and, in some areas, insignificance.

But the senator, well-known for pointing out "pork" in the federal government, also describes an overly bureaucratic National Park Service that he paints as a cumbersome agency that spends more on administration and overhead than on the parks themselves.

"... only half of the funds appropriated by Congress even go to the park superintendents, while the national headquarters and regional offices consume more of the NPS budget than facility maintenance projects," the report charges. "Beyond the staff and funding at the individual park units, there is an expansive amount of administrative and specialty support offices and programs.

"In total, the NPS budget provides $455 million to regional and service-wide support offices," the report illustrates. "In comparison, the 59 National Parks representing the 'crown jewels' of the park system receive $442 million in annual general operation and maintenance funds. An additional $168 million is needed for external administration costs such as space rental, postage, and centralized IT costs."

Could The Report Prompt Attacks On The Park Service Budget?

The report, released late Tuesday morning in Washington, D.C., and provided in advance of that to the Traveler, comes at an interesting time, less than two weeks after a budget impasse in Congress was resolved and so allowed the national parks to reopen after being closed for 16 days. That closure of the parks generated much anger in some corners of Congress over how the Park Service handled the system's shutdown.

Whether the details of Sen. Coburn's report are used to attack the Park Service's budget remain to be seen. Action on the report could prove interesting, in that it might ferret out wasteful spending by the agency ... or provide justification for a better-funded Park Service.

Regardless, the senator offers plenty of fodder for budget scrutiny, with sections titled Inessential Programs & Activities, Duplicative & Inefficient Programs, Parks As Pork And Political Power, Parks That Are Inaccessbile To The Public, Important Projects But Better Ways To Give Tribute, and Lack National Significance Or Authentic Historical Value.

"Our elected representatives have been too focused on their own parochial political interests to see the state of disrepair that has befallen some of our greatest national treasures. For example, the National Mall —clearly visible from the Capitol and White House— has become a national disgrace, trampled upon and worn out," Sen. Coburn writes in a letter to taxpayers that leads into the report. "Politicians would rather take credit for creating a new park in their community than caring for the parks that already exist. There is, after all, no ribbon cutting ceremony for taking out the trash, fixing a broken railing or filling a pothole."

But the senator's findings and contentions drew disagreement from the National Parks Conservation Association as well as the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, two groups that advocate on behalf of the National Park Service and park system.

"To casual readers or to reporters on tight deadlines unfamiliar with the workings of the National Park System and the budgetary process – it would be easy to think that Coburn offers a multitude of factual information, at times even seemingly compelling info, along with his self-prescribed solutions," said Joan Anzelmo, a former park superintendent and now a member of the Coalition. "However one has to really understand how national parks operate, how the budget process works and how certain funding sources cannot simply be transferred from one authorized use to something Coburn thinks would be a better use of funds.

"... Every criticism and every solution is framed by Coburn to appear reasonable and persuasive but in fact requires cooperation within Congress and the passage of several new laws and new budget formulas," she added in an email. "It is hard to imagine a Congress as dysfunctional as exists now could ever get to the legislation that would be required for the Coburn solution."

At NPCA, Kristen Brengel shared the senator's concern over the Park Service's staggering maintenance backlog, a backlog Congress has contributed greatly to through its budgeting actions.

"There are a number of troubling trends the American public has observed in the last several years – the National Park Service budget hasn’t kept pace with inflation and in the last three years we have witnessed a major decline in National Park Service funding," Ms. Brengel, the organization's senior director of legislative affairs and government relations, wrote in an email. "This year was the third straight year of budget cuts for the National Park Service; most recently the sequester added insult to injury.

"The FY13 cut was a full 8 percent -- or more than $180 million -- below last year in today’s dollars. The funding available to operate our national parks is 13 percent below three years ago," she noted.

"The deferred maintenance backlog is nearly $12 billion and growing; the most critical projects have a $4.5 billion backlog. Over the last decade, the park construction budget has declined by nearly 70 percent in today’s dollars. Senator Coburn’s report doesn’t point out this trend, which is a symptom of the failed Congressional budget process."

Also finding short-comings in the report was Deny Galvin, a former deputy director of the National Park Service and now a member of the Coalition's Advisory Board, who took issue with a number of Sen. Coburn's points.

"This report is really more a criticism of Congress than of the NPS. Most of the programs it criticizes are based in law. The NPS has to administer them," he said after reading the senator's report. "The contention that (the Park Service's) recent actions have exacerbated the (maintenance) backlog doesn’t stand up. Three of the programs it would eliminate have been around for about a half century. (Historic Preservation Fund 1966, Land and Water Fund 1965, National Recreation and Preservation ((RTCA and Heritage Areas)) 1963 with some authorities from the '30s," he said.

As to the senator's contention that "recent actions" have caused much of the problem with the Park Service's maintenance backlopg, Mr. Galvin pointed out that, "(T)he facts seem to argue otherwise. Here are the 12 largest park budgets in the NPS: Everglades, Gateway, Golden Gate, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky, Independence, Lake Mead, National Mall, Sequoia, Statue of Liberty, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. The newest arrivals on this list were authorized by Congress in 1972 (Gateway and Golden Gate)."

Beyond that, trying to tie the Park Service's budget tightly to the country's national deficit problems doesn't hold up, he said.

"National parks are a tiny and declining part of the federal budget. Today they are 1/15th of 1 percent of the federal budget. In 1981 they were 1/8th of 1 percent. If you eliminated the entire NPS budget it would take about 6,000 years to eliminate the debt," said Mr. Galvin. "There is no indication that expenditures on national parks have anything to do with the deficit. If one goes back to the surpluses of the Clinton years the causes are clear; tax cuts, two wars, Medicare prescription expansion, homeland security expansion, the 2008 crash. Whatever one thinks about the policies that drove these expenditures they have nothing to do with national parks."

Unpopular Parks?

Senator Coburn and his staff spent quite some time combing through legislative park history and Park Service records in assembling Parked! For instance, the report notes that, "(M)uch like bellbottoms and disco, many national parks created in the 1970s are not very popular today. Nearly half of the 25 least-visited parks were established in the '70s."

One of those park units, the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, saw just 604 visitors in 2012. With an annual budget of $193,000, that visitation translated into a visitor subsidy of $319.50, the report notes.

The report also singles out the First Ladies National Historic Site in Ohio, a unit of the park system created through the efforts of a U.S. representative whose wife became founder and president of the "National First Ladies’ Library."

"The National Park Service spends nearly one million dollars per year on a site that only accommodated 9,063 visitors in 2012. That equates to the American taxpayers funding the 25 daily visitors at $110 each," the report says in reference to the First Ladies site. "In total, the museum has received more than $10 million from the federal government since it was opened in 2000. This includes a 2009 congressional earmark for $124,000 that was spent 'to catalogue every book purchased by First Lady Abigail Fillmore for the White House during Millard’s presidency, and then purchase duplicates of those books for the Library’s collection.' A 2008 exhibit featured papier-mâché replicas of nine presidential pets, such as Barney Bush."

When asked about the senator's approach to culling units from the park system, Ms. Anzelmo counters that his approach is too simplistic.

"While Coburn spews out 208 pages of mind numbing information, much of it is lacking context with the examples presented and lacking any grasp of reality with the operations on the ground," she said. "Furthermore, Coburn has reduced the superlative and richly diverse U.S. National Park System to a numerical spread sheet with a goal to lop off lesser known and lesser visited units of the National Park System despite the history they contain and commemorate or the services they provide to their local communities."

Mr. Galvin added that, "(S)mall parks have small budgets. The 14 parks with the smallest budgets would yield a total of around $14 million. You have to eliminate a lot of parks to get to $700 million annually."

In sketching out a massive reform program for the Park Service, Sen. Coburn would raise user fees across-the-board, scuttle many congressional decisions that dictate land purchases for the agency, and put the agency on a bureaucratic diet.

To help right the National Park System, the senator calls for $185.6 million in program cuts that could be directed at reducing the Park Service's $11.5 billion maintenance backlog. Nearly half of that money -- $91 million -- could be obtained, he believes, by performing a top-to-bottom analysis of Park Service spending to "identify and consolidate inter-agency and intra-agency duplication and waste, with the goal of downsizing the regional and service wide support activities by 20 percent."

And Sen. Coburn also calls for the public to pay more for maintaining the parks through higher pass and user fees (bump the annual America The Beautiful Pass from $80 to $110, hike the lifetime senior pass from $10 to $80, "(E)liminate ban on recreation fees for all parks and implement fees where feasible and appropriate"), and through more efficient fee collection systems.

Such changes could generate another $89 million that could be applied towards the maintenance backlog, he contends.

The senator also questions the Park Service's land acquisition decisions, noting that the $107 million it is spending to acquire 1,366 state-owned acres in Grand Teton National Park could be put to better use addressing the park's deferred maintenance backlog. He also wonders why the agency would spend $2.77 million to buy just three acres of land at Virgin Islands National Park.

"Over the last decade, Congress has appropriated $527.4 million through the LWCF to acquire more land for the National Park Service. During that period, the needed repairs on existing NPS land increased by $5.4 billion," the senator's report pointed out. "This policy is in contradiction with the 'fix it first' strategy. No one builds an addition to his or her house when the roof is caving in. Nor should their government."

Mr. Galvin points out, however, that Congress authorized those land purchases.

Looking through the entire report, Ms. Brengel asserted that the senator's approach glossed over the heart of the Park Service's, and park system's, problems -- inadequate funding.

"Americans are proud to have a world class National Park System – Yellowstone, Denali, Joshua Tree, Mesa Verde, San Antonio Missions and Great Basin—some sites are remote and others in our urban areas. All are part of our incredible shared national heritage," she said.

"The majority of the report focuses on whether certain units should be included in the National Park System rather than focusing on the issue at hand -- what is it going to take to ensure we preserve and protect the National Park System in the long term? He may not value National Heritage Areas, a unique program that protects our history without designating new park units, but eliminating the low-cost, innovative program will not fix the agency’s budget issues," added Ms. Brengel.

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And one more thought - my alma mater has an established policy where the college must have in hand an endowment equal to 125% of the building cost of any project (to avoid indebtedness and provide for future maintenance expenses) before starting construction.

Maybe if local communities and Members of Congress are eager to get their own NPS site, they should demonstrate a similar ability to help support the site in the future (through a private endowment, Friends program, etc). Seems reasonable to me. It's great to have the idea of the "common good," but there is also the problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs.

Let's get rid of them because when you look at acreage vs visitors/year, obviously these places simply are not NP worthy

Of course the visitor per acre is a meaningless stat when discussing funding. But you knew that.

In part I agree with the Senator. There do NOT need to be 401 units of the NPS. There are a lot of small NHP and NHS' that could easily be managed by a state or local agency. So many of these places are essentially a congresmans "treat" to their state.

And NPS actually requested the defunding of the National Capital Performing Arts Program in their FY12 budget request. Guess what happened?

This is what was included in the conference report for the appropriations bill that covered the NPS for FY12:

"National Capitol Area Performing Arts Program.--The conferees direct the Service to maintain funding for the National Capital Area Performing Arts Program and have included $612,000 for the summer concert series staged on the U.S. Capitol grounds."

edited for wonky formatting

wildfire97, I do understand your point. There is an excellent book on the subject of the NPS and the issue of "Typecasting the Parks" titled "Our National park System" by Dwight Rettie. One chapter of the book, mentioned above, deals extensively with the politics of establishing some NPS units and the criteria set forth by the NPS for recommendation of said. The classic example in the book was the Mar-A-Largo National Historic Site in the State of Florida. I think it is important to review site establishment procedures, understand the complex political incentives in establishing them, etc. One issue of course is who is to decide what has national significance, is relevant, etc. and what is not. I must admit I lean toward the environmental side of the issue, but .... In any case the book is well worth reading for those interested in an analysis of the NPS and many of its policies.

Kurt- Good synopsis. Thanks.

Regarding the Senator's criticism of the regional and servicewide internal structures, I think it's important to remember that the staff in these places are ultimately doing park work. Having these centralized locations takes pressure of the parks to staff (and house) duplicative HR representatives, IT support staff, and data entry clerks-- not to mention the number of programmatic decision-makers needed to oversee more than 20 Congressionally designed fund sources. While it might appear to be overhead, it's not as bloated as he's suggesting.

Here's a comment by one of our more fair and balanced commentators on the American scene, Jim Hightower:

What a show the goofily-fanatical tea party Republicans are putting on in Washington!

Fair and balanced. LOL Yeah, everyone that is "fair and balanced"gets admitted to the Progressive Hall of Fame.

Hazen, Don. "Texas Populist Jim Hightower Makes Progressive 'Hall of Fame,' as Nation Magazine Gathering Grapples with Conflicted Feelings about President Obama".

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