Tuesday, April 18, 2006

National Parks brace for 20 to 30% reductions

By BRODIE FARQUHAR - Star-Tribune correspondent

The Bush administration has directed the National Park Service, including Wyoming’s Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks to substantially decrease its reliance on tax-supported funding, according to internal documents released Monday by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Park Service officials say they’re simply trying to cope with rising costs and tighter budgets, without harming the parks or decreasing the enjoyment of more than 270 million visitors each year.

According to Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, the Park Service is using a new approach called "core operations analysis," in which each park is asked to develop budgets based on a 20 to 30 percent reduction in federal budget support. Park superintendents have the daunting task of deciding which visitor services or other functions can be jettisoned, Ruch said.

Whatever shortfalls in support for essential operations remain must be covered with fee hikes, donations from foundations, partnerships with concessionaires and businesses, cost shifting or increased reliance on volunteers, Ruch said.

“If our national parks are going to be reduced to performing only the bare minimum of ‘core operations,’ the public ought to be given some say as to what is considered essential,” Ruch said.

Another critic of the Bush administration goes even further. Scott Silver, of Wild Wilderness in Bend, Ore., maintains that all federal land and wildlife agencies are being financially starved, to the point that the only way to keep operating is with an ever-growing reliance on fee hikes, charity, volunteers, outsourcing, concessionaires and partnerships with recreation-based businesses.

"The way I see it, national parks have begun the process of downsizing, service shedding, contracting out, privatizing, commercializing and in some cases perhaps even closing their doors,” Silver said. He sees parallel programs at work in the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Amy McNamara, national parks analyst for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said despite rhetoric from Washington, D.C., national parks are not getting the financial resources they need to operate.

“Grand Teton couldn’t pay its utility bill” when costs increased 46 percent from 2003 to 2005, she said. Meanwhile, Yellowstone biologists have to beat the bushes to find donations to support basic, biological research, she added.

Yellowstone even promised in its environmental assessment for upgrading the Old Faithful Visitor Center that there would be “no additional staffing” for a bigger and more modern facility. While Yellowstone recently celebrated the news that it will receive $15 million from the Yellowstone Foundation and $11 million for the federal government for a 33,000-square-foot Old Faithful Visitor Education Center, there’s nothing in the budget for additional staffing.

Budget matters

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the president’s budget proposes $100 million in cuts from the current National Park Service budget, especially land acquisition, construction and maintenance. That leaves the parks system with $2.2 billion, which doesn’t come close to the maintenance backlog estimated to be between $4.1 billion and $6.8 billion.

Cameron Hardy, press secretary for Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., said the senator “has requested an increase of $150 million in the NPS budget each year over the past three years.” Hardy cautioned that “the proposed budget is just that- proposed. Senator Thomas takes the needs of our nation’s parks very seriously and will continue to advocate for improved funding for the NPS and improved efficiency in how that money is used- not one or the other, but both.”

Early start for Grand Teton

Two years ago, Grand Teton Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott anticipated that tough times were ahead, said Joan Anzelmo, park spokeswoman. Scott immediately put the brakes on hiring permanent, full-time employees and invited regional staff to evaluate the park’s budget, mission and staff levels.

“We’re about two-thirds of the way through the core operations program,” Anzelmo said. Barring any future crisis, the public should not see any signs of budget austerity this summer, she added.

The park has adjusted seasonal assignments and has downsized its fleet of cars, trucks and vans by about a third, creating a shared pool of vehicles that employees have to request in advance. Local utility costs are going up, she added, “and you already know what’s happening at the gas pump.”

Grand Teton has to find savings of $50,000 to $70,000 to compensate for higher energy costs. Longer range, the park has to find savings of $2 million to $3 million in a flat budget scenario. Right now, visitor centers at Moose and Coulter Bay remain open, but consolidation could lie ahead, she warned.

The budget picture “is not grim, but it isn’t rosy,” Anzelmo said.

The big budget question for Grand Teton is how long its old water and sewer systems can keep going, nursed along by a dedicated maintenance crew, she said. A major system failure could blow the budget.

Yellowstone just starting

“We’ve dipped our toe in the water,” said Al Nash, spokesman for Yellowstone National Park. The administration is just getting started with the core operations analysis, he said, identifying several hundred activities in the park and asking why the park does what it does.

“The visitor experience this summer should mirror what they experienced last summer,” with no cutbacks in staff, ranger interpretive talks or hours for visitor centers, he said. “I don’t know about next year,” Nash acknowledged. A federal budget has been proposed and is working its way through Congress.

“This summer, we’ll start making tentative plans based on what we know then,” he said, noting that budgets can take interesting turns in Congress. Yellowstone hasn’t done anything dramatic on cutting costs, he said.

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