Summertime Blues

The National Park Service struggles with staff shortfalls and a maintenance backlog at the peak of visitor season.

It's summertime and the living is easy. That is, unless you happen work for the National Park Service, in which case you're probably trying to figure out how to manage deteriorating facilities with fewer employees during the peak visitor season. National parks reported more than 271 million visitors last year, with summer being the most popular season.

Despite budget increases over the last several years, national parks from Alaska to Maine are struggling to pay rising personnel and operating costs, sometimes leaving key posts vacant, reducing hours at visitor centers and cutting back on services such as trash pickup and grounds upkeep. Decades of deferred maintenance have resulted in a backlog that will take billions of dollars to fix. Infrastructure as varied as sewer lines, roads and trails have fallen into such disrepair they threaten both the safety of visitors and the very resources the parks are designed to protect, some current and former park service officials say.

A report by the Government Accountability Office in March that examined funding trends from 2001 through 2005 (GAO-06-431) cited dozens of examples of parks cutting services to pay for things such as salary increases mandated by Congress and rising utility costs. Acadia National Park in Maine, for example, closed all seven restrooms along roads and trailheads during the 2004-2005 winter season in order to keep them open in the summer. Although the coastal park's law enforcement division has lost two patrol cars in the last three years, officials couldn't afford to replace them. They could have replaced one had they declined to hire a seasonal ranger, but park officials told auditors that would have jeopardized the safety of visitors and resources.

Problems are widespread, GAO found. In Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, officials eliminated ranger programs in one northern district serving 179 campsites and closed a visitor center at the south end of the park for all of last year. Out West, at Yellowstone, fewer remote patrols are being conducted by less-experienced personnel than in the past.

In June, the Coalition for National Park Service Retirees released a survey of 17 parks that concluded visitors this summer will face greater risks because of staffing cuts in full-time emergency and law enforcement personnel.

Officials at the Interior Department, which oversees the Park Service, note that the agency has received significant funding increases since 2001. Responding to GAO, Matthew J. Hogan, acting assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, says, "Budgets from 2002 through 2005 continued funding for construction and major maintenance at levels double those of the mid-1990s." Additionally, base operations funding from 2001 to 2005 increased by 14 percent, or $128.6 million; visitor services increased by 17 percent, or $50 million, he says.

Those increases have been welcomed, the coalition report noted, "but have only succeeded in bringing some parks out of the depths of the financial abyss and back to its brink."

The Senate Appropriations Committee in late June approved a budget of $2.3 billion for the National Park Service in fiscal 2007, a $32 million increase over this year's budget. But even if Congress passes the budget, the $603 million included for maintenance won't begin to cover the backlog.

Where could the money come from? Rep. John Murtha has an idea. Last month, the Pennsylvania Democrat famous for his call to end the war in Iraq said taxpayers were spending $8 billion a month on the war. At that rate, Murtha estimates a redirection of spending priorities would wipe out what he says is the National Park Service's $9.1 billion maintenance backlog in just a month and 10 days.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

    Download
  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

    Download
  • Toward A More Innovative Government

    This research study aims to understand how state and local leaders regard their agency’s innovation efforts and what they are doing to overcome the challenges they face in successfully implementing these efforts.

    Download
  • From Volume to Value: UK’s NHS Digital Provides U.S. Healthcare Agencies A Roadmap For Value-Based Payment Models

    The U.S. healthcare industry is rapidly moving away from traditional fee-for-service models and towards value-based purchasing that reimburses physicians for quality of care in place of frequency of care.

    Download
  • GBC Flash Poll: Is Your Agency Safe?

    Federal leaders weigh in on the state of information security

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.