Could Budget Cuts Close 200 National Parks?

Automatic budget cuts scheduled to take effect in January could close up to 200 national parks. That’s the assessment from the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) as reported by Fox News. These automatic cuts, called “sequestration”, are part of a 2011 budget agreement between President Obama and Congress that will automatically reduce federal spending by $1.2 trillion over 10 years unless the two parties reach agreement on a new budget. Washington has been operating without a budget for the past three years.

But back to the story: Is the proposed $218 million cut to the National Park Service budget a serious threat? Of course it is, but not for the reasons you may assume. This $218 million cut would come from the discretionary part of the NPS budget, which presently sits at $2.7 billion. $218 million is a reduction of 8%, which doesn’t sound like a reason to close 200 national parks. But the NPS, like many federal agencies, spends most of its discretionary budget on employee salaries, salaries that can’t be cut and must be paid. As a taxpayer, you don’t fund the national parks so much as fund national park employees.

The good folks who run the National Park Service will admit (off record) that this spending pattern leaves the agency no flexibility to deal with unforeseen problems and unexpected costs. In fact, it leaves little money for the upkeep and maintenance of the parks. The 22,000 strong workforce of the NPS does a good job, and I’d hate to argue that a lot of them don’t earn their pay. But for many national parks, their annual operating budget barely covers their employee costs. This is not a model for success.

Look, this budget sequestration – a $218 million cut – is nothing compared to the long-term budget situation facing the NPS. Our government is operating with an annual budget deficit of over $1.1 trillion, with a debt of $16.2 trillion ($16,200,000,000,000). And with the rapidly increasing costs of social security, medicare, the new healthcare law, and boring old interest on all that borrowed money, there will be less and less room in the budget for the NPS.

As I’ve written here, reform of the park service is absolutely necessary if it is to survive. There is no doubt that the NPS will have to slim down. But if it can become a model federal agency, an incredibly efficient and effective organization, the NPS will stand a much better chance of fighting for space in future budgets. And if I may offer a challenge: if the NPCA is truly dedicated to protecting and enhancing our national parks for future generations, it could take the lead in promoting the transformation of the NPS. The NPCA is a powerful and respected organization, but the days of lobbying for bigger and bigger park budgets are over. It’s time to change your gameplan, friends.


Dear Congress: No New Parks, Please

Via Midcurrent I read that Congress is considering adding three new parks to the National Park System:

The three sites include the national laboratories in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Los Alamos, New Mexico, as well as the Hanford Nuclear Reactor in Washington. Each of the locations played a key role in the Manhattan Project, the top-secret program tasked with developing the first atomic weapons.

For a site to become a national park, the National Park Service will conduct a study to determine if the site meets specific qualifications. The first is that the site must be nationally significant, meaning the site (1) is an outstanding example of a particular type of resource, (2) possesses exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the natural or cultural themes of our Nation’s heritage, (3) offers superlative opportunities for recreation, for public use and enjoyment, or for scientific study, and/or (4) retains a high degree of integrity as a true, accurate, and relatively unspoiled example of the resource.

The second qualification is that the site must be a suitable addition to the National Park System, generally meaning that the site must represent a natural, cultural, or recreational resource that is not already adequately represented in the park system or by another land management agency. The third qualification is that the site must be feasible for inclusion in the system; that is, the area or site must be one that is of a size and configuration to allow the park service to purchase, administer, and successfully preserve the site.

I do not know if the three nuclear laboratories possess these qualifications. The park service will make that determination. And philosophically, I have no problem with adding new national parks or additional acreage to existing national parks. However, Congress has been playing this game a long time, a game in which they add new parks, generally for political popularity, without providing adequate funding to cover the costs associated with administering these new sites. As a result, there has been a general deterioration in the ability of the park service to keep up with existing responsibilities in areas such as facility maintenance, scientific research, protection and restoration of habitats and historic sites, and so on. I would suspect that if one prioritized the long list of things that need to be funded in the national parks, the available funding would run out long before we reached the ranking at which we’d find the need to include these three nuclear labs as new national parks.

Restoring Tuolumne Valey in Yosemite National Park

Wow. Just wow. The voters of San Francisco this November will have the opportunity to vote on a measure to drain the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park. Now, if you’re not familiar with the battle over Hetch Hetchy, let me just say that the damming of the Tuolumne River stands as one of the earliest and most pivotal debates about national parks and, really, wilderness in America. This was the fight that made the Sierra Club a national powerhouse and John Muir a legend. This is what you call turning back the clock on what many see as a national tragedy.

And now, nearly a century following passage of the law that allowed the damning of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, San Franciscans will decide if restoring the place Muir described as “one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain temples” is worth more than the cheap drinking water and hydro power they receive from the dam. And if you think that the outcome is a foregone conclusion in ultra-liberal San Fran, guess again. The liberal political establishment is lined up against the measure, while some prominent republicans and the environmentalists are in favor of removing the dam. I’ll be watching this one closely.




Bikes Not (Really) Welcome in National Parks

I’m catching up on my reading since returning from vacation, and just noticed this story in High Country News’s Range Blog about the new rules governing mountain biking in national parks. You can read the details in the article, which also provides a link directly to the new rule. I want to offer a few observations about the rule, and the park service’s mentality toward mountain biking, that really don’t require specifics.

First, I’ll come right out and state that I believe the National Park Service is hostile toward mountain biking in national parks. I believe this new rule, which governs under what conditions mountain bikes may be allowed on trails and roads in national parks, is heavy handed and creates hurdles that unreasonably impede the development of mountain bike trails. Two specific requirements under this new rule – requiring a rule-making for new bike trails, and requiring the Regional Director’s signature to approve bike use on trails – are completely unnecessary, and seem intended to cause unnecessary expense and delay in the planning of bike trails. It’s easier from a procedural standpoint to build a new road through a national park than it is to get a new mountain bike trail approved.

I know all of the arguments about how mountain biking causes resource damage, scares wildlife, and interferes with other users – particluarly hikers.  Most of these concerns are easily alleviated with proper trail design and by separating users. But the new rule stands common sense on its head by making it more difficult to build bike-specific trails, and easier to simply open existing hiking trails to bicycle users. That’s the opposite approach to good recreation management.

I write these words as a mountain biker, trail runner, family hiker, and lover of national parks. I can’t explain the park service’s hostility toward mountain biking. I’ll tell you that the culture of the agency is rooted in an era before mountain biking became popular, and that there is an agency perspective that hikers are low-impact nautre purists while mountain bikers are thrill-seeking extremists. But I’ll tell you for what it’s worth that I just spent a night tent camping in a Yellowstone National Park campground where I was surrounded by 300 motor homes/RVs and approximately 1,000 other campers. The park service has no problem with development and catering to those who can’t leave mechanization, civilization, and creature comforts behind, so long as they don’t bring their mountain bikes along for the ride.