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'Juggling act' at nation's parks is not funny

Across the 90-year-old national park system, officials face tough choices as growing costs from labor, utilities, maintenance, operations and preservation exceed wartime budgets from Washington.
Alan Van Valkenberg, Heidi Koenig, Werner Koenig
Death Valley National Park Ranger Alan Van Valkenberg describes wildflowers to tourists. The position of park botanist, responsible for the cataloging and research of native species and invasive plants that threaten them, is unfilled due to budget constraints.Rita Beamish / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Once portals that lured gold-seeking pioneers, the black holes that dot the sun-baked mountainsides of this California desert haunt J.T. Reynolds.

The Death Valley National Park superintendent fears tourists will tumble down the decrepit shafts or vanish into the rocky tunnels that abound in his park’s famed Gold Rush-era mines and ghost towns.

To completely “mine-safe” some 6,000 shafts and caves would take money that Reynolds does not have.

“Most visitors do not realize that park resources have been under threat from deterioration, vandalism, neglect and rot for some time,” Reynolds said. “We put up a good front and try to keep high visitor-use areas clean and neat. Even this facade is fading due to the lack of appropriate resources.”

Across the 390 parks, preserves and historic sites that make up the 90-year-old national park system, Reynolds’ colleagues face similar tough choices as growing costs from labor, utilities, maintenance, operations and preservation exceed wartime budgets from Washington.

For example:

  • Alaska’s Denali National Park has cut campfire talks and ranger interpretation programs by 50 percent over five years.
  • Four out of 10 historic buildings at Gettysburg’s hallowed battlefields in Pennsylvania and the neighboring Eisenhower National Historic Site are in poor or serious condition.
  • 65 percent of park roads are in poor to fair condition.
  • Campgrounds and visitor centers at Blue Ridge National Parkway opened a month late this year to save money.
  • When winter rain visits Death Valley, the bucket comes out near the visitor center cash register. Before the leaky ceiling got a temporary patch job, a chunk of soggy ceiling landed on a woman paying her entrance fee.

Managing park money
Some parks have received $4.7 billion in long-awaited money from the Bush administration for decaying roads and structures that were on maintenance backlog lists for years.

But managers at many parks report they are losing substantial ground in maintaining and protecting their current resources while facing increased costs from homeland security, labor, energy and the crush of 270 million annual visitors.

Acting Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in her office at the Department of the Interior in Washington Wednesday, May 24, 2006. Scarlett said it would be futile to try to create artificial barriers to protect parks from the outside world. Instead, she said, the government needs to work with state, local and private landowners. "Nature itself," she said, "knows no boundaries." (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)Gerald Herbert / AP

The Interior Department says it believes the parks have fared better than many federal agencies during a time of war and budget cutbacks.

“Our parks are in better shape than they were 10 years ago. We’ve completed over 6,000 maintenance projects,” said Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett. “We’ve just about tripled the science money spent in parks.”

It’s not such a rosy picture at all parks.

Managers at Yosemite National Park in California said the operating budget is 32 percent short of park needs and bluntly described the impact in their latest business plan.

“If the park continues on its current vector, irreplaceable natural and cultural resources will be placed at risk: severely underfunded activities include maintaining historic architecture and controlling invasive plant and animal species,” the park managers wrote.

The future appears even more uncertain. President Bush wants the government to cover just 70 percent of the parks’ anticipated payroll and utility costs in 2007, down from 100 percent this year.

That has left parks scrambling for alternate sources of money, such as charitable donations.

Relying more on charity, fees
Philanthropic groups spent more than $60 million on parks last year, doubling their largesse of a decade ago, said Curt Buchholtz, president of the National Parks Friends Alliance. Such donations helped pay for enhancements such as the $13.5 million Yosemite Falls entrance.

But generosity in the tens of millions of dollars is not a panacea when billions are ultimately needed.

“The frustration we have is we are in a budgetary decline and it’s harder to do operations in the field, and philanthropy is not going to be the answer to that,” said Jon Jarvis, the Park Service’s Pacific West regional director.

Many parks have raised fees or are considering increases at their entry gates, campsites and boat ramps.

This year, 21 of the 147 parks that charge fees raised their rates an average of $1 per person and $5 per car.

Park supervisors appreciate the recent money to clear backlogs. Fort Scott National Historic Site in Kansas received a $90,000 boost in 2005 that pulled the park operating budget out of the red, and money for 12 roofs plus work on chimneys, walkways and a security alarm system.

“The park’s in much better shape than it was six years ago,” superintendent John Daugherty said.

Backlogs and leaky roofs
But most park managers worry that solving yesterday’s problems without enough money for today’s maintenance only creates new backlogs for tomorrow. Some parks report daily operating budget shortfalls in excess of 50 percent.

“Sooner or later the repair is beyond the capability of our operating budget. The leaking roof you had now becomes a failing roof that has to be replaced,” said Gettysburg National Military Park superintendent John Latscher. He estimates the park’s backlog at $43 million.

At Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin, a $1.3 million renovation is approved for a historic lighthouse that had succumbed to fallen gutters and severe water damage after a lack of maintenance doomed its last fix-up.

“I’m really scared the same thing will happen again,” superintendent Bob Krumenaker said. “We don’t have the funding for the exhibits to go inside the lighthouse and I’m not going to have sufficient maintenance staff to keep it up.”

The director of the Park Service, Fran Mainella, dismisses some worries, saying estimates of some daily operating shortfalls resemble a wish list of work that could be done rather than urgent priorities that must be accomplished.

Adds Interior’s Scarlett: “Our park employees love what they do with a passion. They’ve got imagination. They’ve got great visions for the future. But it’s not appropriate to think of that as an operative shortfall.”

'Frustrating juggling act'
With little hope of a massive infusion of public money, the parks are being pressed by Washington to set clear priorities and meet them through creativity and efficiency. That means more volunteer labor, increased fundraising, higher fees and fewer visitor center hours.

** ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY JUNE 18 AND THEREAFTER ** A tour bus and cyclist meet at a bronze statue of U.S. Army Brevet Major General Alexander Stewart Webb, Tuesday, May 3, 2005, in Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pa. Gettysburg may also become home to a slot-machine casino, a prospect that investors say will pump up the area's economy, but that some Civil War historians and preservationists worry will sully the heritage of the community and sprawling Gettysburg National Military Park. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)Carolyn Kaster / AP

Apostle Islands already is running fewer boat patrols to compensate for higher fuel costs. Krumenaker said the pressure to find new money led him to briefly consider converting some lighthouses into bed-and-breakfast inns.

He ultimately rejected the idea. “That is not what I went to graduate school for,” the superintendent said.

Reynolds winced as he described the trade-offs he has made at Death Valley. Just 15 rangers now patrol 3.4 million California acres, a four-person crew maintains 1,000 miles of paved and dirt roads, and the park has reduced restroom cleaning schedules.

“It is one frustrating juggling act,” he said.

Examples of cutbacks
Some solutions ultimately involve cutting back.

Unable to pay for salary increases imposed by Congress, parks are doing without positions: a botanist for Death Valley, a canon preservationist at Gettysburg, a trained curator for Big Bend’s 125,000-item collection of Native American and Texas Republic artifacts.

“We are frequently getting new items and nobody with the credentials to do that right,” Big Bend superintendent John King said.

At other parks:

  • Hikers in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona encounter mounds of trash where illegal immigrants and drug dealers cross from Mexico. Superintendent Kathy Billings said work on cleanup, potholes and painting suffers while her ranger force, with $1 million-a-year in extra money, devotes 75 percent of its time to the illegal border crossings. The visitor center is now shuttered most holidays.
  • Blue Ridge Parkway’s maintenance staff in Virginia is operating at two-thirds strength, meaning less grass mowing, restroom cleaning and trail clearing, superintendent Phil Francis said.
  • Point Reyes National Seashore in California has cut ranger-led programs by 500, to 1,300 a year.

Jim Boone, of Olympia, Wash., was disgusted by a dingy restroom during a recent visit to Yosemite.

“It looked like nothing had been done to it in the last 30 years. It was in really bad shape. It needed to be completely rejuvenated or torn down and rebuilt,” Boone said.

The familiar green and gray ranger uniform also is less visible as volunteers and concession workers take over many jobs.

From a Death Valley overlook, Lieve Jerger, a wildflower enthusiast from San Pedro, Calif., gazed at the valley’s salt-encrusted floor. “I haven’t noticed any rangers. In the past you’d see them around the park. Now you’re more on your own.”

Raise fees?
Park managers have few short-term options in an environment with war, homeland security, high fuel prices and budget deficits.

Two-thirds of Americans would support fee increases if the extra money were used for road and building improvements as Bush has emphasized, an AP-Ipsos poll found.

Charitable organizations continue to help but usually want their money spent on projects that enrich parks’ experiences, not daily operations, said Ken Olson, who until recently was president of Friends of Acadia, a group helping Maine’s most famous park.

“Government is the landlord. The landlord is responsible for taking care of it,” Olson said. “They are the steward to maintain it for future generations.”

Though he delivered significant backlog money, Bush is now pressing to cut the parks overall by $100 million for 2007. Day-to-day operations would increase slightly, but at a lower level than in recent years.

Many in Congress are not satisfied, but some of their solutions sound like those from Park Service headquarters.

“The cost of operations has gone up, there’s no question about that,” said Sen. Craig Thomas, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks.

The Wyoming Republican has proposed a $150 million increase for the parks, but he adds: “At the same time when that happens you have to find new ways to be efficient, you have to find new ways of management.”

Part I: Pressures, inside and out, on the parks