PARK RANGER HELPS MOTORIST
Douglas C. Pizac  /  AP file
The public has become accustomed to easy access to National Park rangers and services, but budget constraints mean cutbacks this summer across the country.
updated 3/18/2004 11:37:17 AM ET 2004-03-18T16:37:17

National park superintendents are being told to cut back on services — possibly even closing smaller, historic sites a couple days a week or shutter visitor centers on federal holidays — without letting on they are making cuts.

The disclosure came as a parks advocacy group issued a report claiming that America’s national parks are being underfunded by as much as $600 million a year, forcing severe cuts that threaten resources and undermine visitors’ enjoyment.

The message to superintendents was disclosed by an association of retired National Park Service employees. The group released a memo e-mailed last month to park superintendents in the Northeast from the Park Service’s Boston office.

Memo urges PR strategy
Among the memo’s suggestions for responding to tight budgets this year are to possibly shutter visitor centers on federal holidays or during winter months, close parks Sundays and Mondays, and eliminate all guided ranger tours and lifeguards at some beaches.

The memo also advises workers to warn officials if controversy arises over any changes they make.

“If you think that some of your specific plans will cause a public or political controversy, Marie and I need to know which ones are likely to end up in the media or result in a congressional inquiry,” says the memo sent Feb. 20 by Chrysandra Walter, the Park Service’s deputy director for the Northeast region.

Walter was referring to Marie Rust, the Park Service’s director for the Northeast region, who is based in Philadelphia. Walter also wrote that she was relaying instructions from Randy Jones, the Park Service’s deputy director.

“Randy felt that the issuance of a press release was the most problematic,” she wrote.

“He suggested that if you feel you must inform the public ... not to directly indicate that ’this is a cut’ in comparison to last year’s operation,” she continued. “We all agreed to use the terminology of ’service level adjustment’ due to fiscal constraints as a means of describing what actions we are taking.”

'Chill over the National Park Service'
Former park superintendent Denny Huffman, representing a group of retired Park Service employees, and Jeff McFarland, director of a professional association of park rangers, said the memo illustrates a broader attempt to sugarcoat facts while stifling people.

“Make no mistake about it. There is a chill over the National Park Service today,” Huffman said at a news conference. The NPS memo and news conference material are online at www.hastingsgroup.com/npsretirees.html.

National Park Service spokesman Dave Barna didn’t dispute the memo’s authenticity or that it reflected an agency-wide trend. He said the agency’s aim was to avoid a public relations fiasco, and cuts would be done judiciously; for example, the only parks to close on holidays or weekends would be small, historic sites.

“All we’re saying is, ’Let us know in advance so we know about this.' We don’t feel it’s necessary to have 380 parks out there whining about their budgets,” he said.

The Park Service’s budget has steadily increased during the Bush, Clinton and previous administrations, Barna said, but had to absorb $50 million in firefighting costs and $150 million in repair costs from Hurricane Isabel last year.

Homeland security also is expensive — each change in the color-coded threat level from yellow to orange costs the Park Service $1 million a month, he said. That pays for 200 law enforcement rangers from the West to guard monuments and memorials in the East, he said.

This year’s Park Service budget is $2.56 billion, including $1.6 billion for operations. The rest is for building projects, acquiring land, historic preservation and maintenance.

'Endangered Rangers' report
On Tuesday, the National Parks Conservation Association issued a report, titled "Endangered Rangers," estimating that the parks are getting just two-thirds of the funding they need, leading to staffing shortages and the deterioration of park facilities.

As a result, it said, American Indian artifacts are being stolen from Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico; black bears are being poached in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia; and museum collections are piled in offices at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana or in a basement at Acadia National Park in Maine.

It also hinders law enforcement, detracts from ranger-guided programs and is forcing some parks to close visitors centers or clean bathrooms less often, the group said.

Don Murphy, deputy director of the National Park Service, said the Bush administration has been focusing its efforts on catching up on park maintenance that has been put off for years. At the same time, it has been spending money to protect national icons, such as the Statue of Liberty and Washington Monument, and prevent illegal immigration through parks along the nation’s borders.

“There certainly is a need. No organization has all of the money at a particular time that it needs,” he said. “You know what the budget is like. It’s tough and we have to go in and fight for every penny and the public and our own employees need to know we recognize there is a need out there operationally.”

The service has been seeking to dedicate money to parks that have seen dwindling funding in an effort to “make these parks whole again,” but without funding increases, it will start impacting visitors, Murphy said.

NPCA recommended a number of short-term possibilities to alleviate problems, including seeking donations from private companies, partnering with volunteer groups, and allowing parks to keep more of the fees they collect at entry gates.

But in the long-term, the group said Congress will have to close the funding gap and to cover the $50 million in annual expenses that result from heightened homeland security demands.

The report is online at www.npca.org.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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