Hidden Crisis is Taking Root in U.S. Parks

Monday, 26 May 2003 07:20 by: Anonymous
By Seth Borenstein
Knight Ridder Newspapers

Sunday 25 May 2003

WASHINGTON Dazzled by views of mountains, deserts and wildlife, visitors to America's national parks rarely notice the missing signs, rotting buildings and fewer rangers to answer questions.

On Sept. 13, 2000, presidential candidate George W. Bush posed before the Cascades in Washington state and warned that national parks were "at the breaking point." He vowed to eliminate a $4.9 billion backlog in deferred maintenance.

Nearly 1,000 days later, the repair budget at Mount Rainier National Park, the tallest and most visited part of the Cascades, was cut 40 percent. That means that two of the park's most urgent problems a heavily used footbridge that's rotting and a historic cabin that's falling apart will go unrepaired.

The budget for repairs at Western parks overall was slashed 28 percent this month, in part to pay for a study, criticized by National Park Service Director Fran Mainella, to determine if park workers should be replaced with low-bid private contractors.

As another summer vacation season begins this Memorial Day weekend, several former park-service executives voiced fear that the entire national-park system is menaced by a hidden crisis.

They cite multiple problems, including inadequate money for maintenance and daily operations, the Bush administration's plan to shift more than 1,700 park jobs to private firms and a general weakening of protection for air, water and animals.

The Bush administration has increased spending on park-system maintenance and construction above what it inherited by $321 million over three years. But it still has provided only 15 cents for every dollar that it said was needed to repair long-overdue maintenance problems. The maintenance backlog may now be as high as $6 billion, according to the General Accounting Office, Congress' auditing arm.

In addition, President Bush has done less to expand the national-park system than any president in more than 100 years, a Knight Ridder analysis found. The president's father, as president, once added four parks in one six-day period; his son has added three in a little over two years.

Last year, he created the Flight 93 National Monument in Pennsylvania and the 3,500-acre Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historic Park in Virginia. He also split off 410,000 acres from an existing park in Idaho and named it Craters of the Moon National Preserve.

Total space in national parks last year shrank by 187,000 acres, a loss of park space roughly equal to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. Park service spokesman Al Nash said he couldn't explain how that happened, nor could three other officials contacted.

"The average visitor, I think, goes to a park and has a wonderful time, comes out and thinks everything is fine," said Denis Galvin, who was acting director of the National Park Service during the first four months of this administration. "What you're really dealing with is an insufficient level of investment. ... Things are getting worse every day."

Roger Kennedy, national parks chief under President Clinton and a Smithsonian museum director under the first President Bush, put it another way.

"They are treating the National Park Service as if they are custodians of parking lots and tourist destinations, not as if they are custodians of our most precious places," Kennedy said.

At Mount Rainier, the maintenance backlog stands at about $50 million, said Dan Blackwell, the park's maintenance chief. At Yellowstone National Park, it's nearly $700 million, park spokeswoman Cheryl Matthews said. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has $117 million in deferred road projects alone.

At Death Valley, one ancient leaky roof was patched so often and so poorly that a waterlogged ceiling tile fell in 2001 and hit a woman as she was paying her entrance fee. The roof isn't scheduled to be replaced until 2006; until then, Death Valley plans to send workers up to the flat roof when it rains to squeegee the water off, Superintendent J.T. Reynolds said.

There has been some progress. When he spoke in the Cascades, Bush said: "Sewage flows untreated into the lakes and streams of Yellowstone National Park. Civil War relics have been soaked by a leaky roof at Gettysburg."

Yellowstone installed a new sewage system for the Old Faithful area in 2001, and another treatment plant is on the way. Yellowstone has had no major sewage spills for more than a year.

Gettysburg's leaky roof remains unrepaired, however.

Including money requested for next year's budget, the Bush administration has increased spending in parks maintenance, road improvements and construction by $321 million over three years. That's 6.6 percent of the $4.9 billion backlog he inherited, according to a Knight Ridder budget analysis. At that rate, it would take about 15 years to work off the backlog.

The current spending level is enough to make the parks better, administration defenders say.

"There will always be things on the list that need to be done," Park Service Deputy Director Don Murphy said. "On balance, the president has done very well by the National Park Service in this regard, especially when it comes to cyclic maintenance. In the long term, the NPS is going to be far better off."

Murphy contended that the Bush administration will spend $5.2 billion on parks maintenance over five years, fulfilling the president's promise. Of that money, though, day-to-day maintenance is expected to consume more than $4 billion, leaving less than $1 billion to work down the backlog.

Parks professionals are alarmed by another plan announced this spring. It would turn over 1,708 federal positions in the National Park Service to private contractors, mostly jobs involving maintenance or security. In an internal memo last month, park service Director Mainella said this switch would cost $3 million just to study and that that would come at the expense of other park-service priorities.

Park-service budget documents also show there will be 101 fewer rangers next year than in January 2001, a drop of about 1 percent.

Park workers perform many functions, and it would cost the government more to shift their duties to private industry than to retain them, contended Mike Finley, a 32-year retired parks veteran who was superintendent of Yellowstone, Yosemite and Everglades national parks.

Ralph Bell, a sign painter at Mount Rainier whose job would be shifted, is one example. He also gives directions, serves on the search-and-rescue team, helps stranded motorists, picks up roadside trash and cautions people not to feed the wildlife.

"All of these things would be have to be contracted out separately or they wouldn't get done," Bell said.

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Bush Shifting Park Jobs to Private Sector
By Michael Doyle
Sacramento Bee

Sunday 25 May 2003

WASHINGTON -- A management revolution is reshaping the nation's parks, though it's one easily missed by most Memorial Day visitors.

Visitors, such as the 50,000 expected at Yosemite National Park over the three-day weekend, will likely see business as usual. Park features should be reliably gorgeous, and park employees will look much the same.

But behind the grand scenery and green uniforms, the Bush administration is shifting the props. Officials are eyeing 1,708 National Park Service jobs, including hundreds on the West Coast, for potential takeover in the next year by private companies.

The "competitive sourcing" proposal, moreover, is likely to grow in future years. Some 11,000 of the Park Service's approximately 22,000 full-time and seasonal jobs have been identified as potentially doable by private business. That inspires efficiency experts and government streamliners, while it worries some park lovers.

"We've got very competent people who are doing the job, and who want to keep doing the job," Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said.

Bush administration plans for letting the private sector in on public work go well beyond the National Park Service. Citing potential cost savings of 20 percent or more, administration officials called for "aggressively encouraging market-based competition throughout the government" in their latest budget proposals.

Officials customarily cite, for instance, the 10,000 cafeteria workers and 11,000 maintenance workers now working for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

It's the Park Service, though, that's fueled much of the debate; in part over questions of whether efficiencies clash with aesthetic values and resource protection.

"Biologists, archaeologists and recreation specialists are driven by a conservation and land ethic, something money can't buy," said Karen Schambach, the Sacramento-based director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility's California office. "Contractors are unlikely to be motivated by the same resource ethic, and contract employees would not be accountable to the public, but to their company."

The administration does have its allies on the outsourcing front.

"I think it's another way for the Park Service to utilize talent outside of the park," said Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, whose district includes Yosemite. "They can get rid of some of those jobs that will then allow them to take care of what their (core) mandate is."

The competitive outsourcing plans themselves are a work in progress. Officials are first identifying which job categories might be appropriate for the private sector: Law enforcement isn't, for instance, but lawn work is. Then, officials are commissioning studies of the individual jobs before deciding whether to proceed.

"You could put out a contract and let Lawn Doctor do it, and probably keep your costs down," Park Service spokesman David Barna said.

Current plans identify 335 jobs in the Park Service's San Francisco-based Pacific West region as likely private sector candidates.

The Interior Department's initial proposal called for Yosemite's "visitor use assistants" to be among the jobs studied for a potential shift into the private sector. The park employs about 45 full-time and 55 seasonal assistants, who collect entrance fees and help around campgrounds.

That initial plan didn't sit well with some Park Service workers.

The latest version makes no reference to the Yosemite jobs or to another, earlier proposal to study 20 fee-collection jobs at Sequoia National Park.

Outright job loss, of course, is one concern. "We don't think any employees will be impacted" by the shifting of jobs, said Park Service spokesman Barna.

Others worry about diversity. More than 40 percent of Golden Gate Recreation Area maintenance workers are classified as "diverse" by the Park Service.

"In recent years, we have sought to increase the diversity of the agency work force," Fran Mainella, the National Park Service director, notes in one memo to Interior Department supervisors earlier this year. "This potential impact upon this work force concerns us."

A third concern involves the actual cost of studying jobs for conversion to private work. Mainella estimated it could cost about $3,000 per job. To help pay for that, as well as for anti-terrorism security measures, Park Service headquarters this month appropriated $4.6 million from the Pacific West region's construction budget.

One result, according to an internal memo obtained by Schambach's group, is that Yosemite lost funding earmarked for the removal of dangerous asbestos in 28 buildings, as well as funding to repair a collapsed drain at Big Oak Flat Tunnel.

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