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.

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