National Park Service: At a Major Crossroads
Editor’s Note: It’s been six months since the federal government began its venture into uncharted waters known as the “sequester.” Ordered to cut their budgets by 5%, governmental departments, including the National Park Service (NPS), found various ways to comply with the congressional mandate. The jury is still out as to how the American public will respond to the sequester, as tighter budgets appear to be certain in the near future. Woodall’s Campground Management spoke to sources in the outdoor recreation industry to gauge what lies ahead. This story appears in the September issue of WCM.
The fate of the National Park Service is at a major fork in the road, says Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition (ARC).
“If we don’t have some change in terms of how national parks are funded and operated, I am pessimistic about national parks being able to be continue to be a catalyst for people to leave the cities and see the great outdoors,” Crandall told Woodall’s Campground Management (WMC). “We will see cutbacks in services, more restrictions in things like visitors centers and park rangers. That is not good for the RV industry and that is not good for the travel and tourism industry,”
As one of the nation’s highest profile lobbyists for national parks, Crandall is adamant that these changes must be adopted now.
As he told WCM on the eve of the sequester late last winter, the federal government must take more of a businesslike approach to park funding and operations. Some 90% of the National Park Service budget comes from government appropriations. This percentage is way out of line and must be reduced as user fees are increased, Crandall argued.
The share of user fees would surely rise if parks would undergo a modernization program so that campgrounds would again appeal to RVers, Crandall said. Most national park campgrounds are configured on a grand plan adopted in 1950, years before the advent of moderns RVs. Since 1987, revenues from RVers have fallen by 50% at the national parks, primarily because most national park campgrounds lack service such as water and electricity, pull-through sites, dump stations and Wi-Fi, he said.
“We also need to reflect the reality a lot of people are coming out of urban America. They don’t own RVs and tents. We have to do what Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA)has done and provide simple accommodations to tents for people to live the real park experience,” he said.
Crandall finds the present fee policy especially vexing.
“Now, you pay a max $25 for a whole carload for seven days access to a national park. It’s created an unintended secondary market. You can walk around Jackson, Wyo., and buy an unused national park entrance receipt for $10.”
Another fee policy Crandall finds irksome is the discount for senior citizens to enter national parks. ‘We don’t do that with healthcare, food or education, why do it for national parks,” he asked. “Let’s be real, we can’t afford to give away free access and 50% camping to every American who is 62. I don’t think anybody intended that to happen. It tends to force families with kids to subsidize seniors.”
As ARVC president, Crandall speaks for his 21 sustaining members, which include the Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA), The Coleman Co., the Good Sam Club, KOA, the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC), National Park Hospitality Association, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA), ReserveAmerica and the Pennsylvania Recreation Vehicle & Camping Association (PRVCA).
NPCA Compares How Congress Views Parks
In early August, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) compared the approach by Congress to tackling the parks budget and found divergent results.
A Senate appropriations bill treats the National Park Service much better than does a similar measure in the House of Representatives, NPCA stated.
The appropriations bill in the Senate is nearly $350 million above the House bill, and also reverses the damaging sequester cuts, according to the NPCA.
The Senate Department of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations bill increases the National Park Service budget by $60 million over Fiscal Year 2012 levels. It provides a substantial increase of $182 million over current levels to operate national parks, although that still is $6 million below the Obama administration's Fiscal Year 2014 levels, the parks advocacy group said.
“The National Parks Conservation Association applauds Sen. (Jack) Reed’s, D-Rhode Island, efforts to restore funding for our national treasures. This investment would move our national parks in the direction of recovery, benefitting visitors, park communities, and the parks, themselves,” said Craig Obey, senior vice president for government affairs for the NPCA.
“In contrast, the House funding levels are fundamentally inadequate and would contribute to a continuing decline for our parks. Although the House bill clearly prioritizes park operations, the funding levels dictated by the House budget are so unrealistic that they don’t come close to meeting the need,” said Obey.
In contrast to the House bill that eliminates all funds for the National Park Service to protect the parks by acquiring inholdings within their boundaries, the Senate bill restores those levels to where they were two years ago, the NPCA review of the funding bill showed.
The Senate bill also reauthorizes for an additional year the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which allows the parks to keep the nearly $180 million in entrance and other fees they collect each year.
“These two bills illustrate stark, alternative futures for our national parks – one with more park rangers, the other with fewer; one with more open park campgrounds, bathrooms, and visitor centers, and the other with more closed facilities," Obey said. "Ultimately, the best way to protect the future of our parks is for Congress and the president to work together on a grand budget deal that addresses the deficit drivers and ends these indiscriminate discretionary cuts that threaten our national parks, the experience of park visitors, and gateway economies that depend on the upkeep of our national treasures."
National Park Journalist Enters the Discussion
Kurt Repanshek, founder and editor of National Parks Traveler, the Internet’s very first site dedicated to covering America’s National Park System and the National Park Service (NPS) on a daily basis and today a leading online source for news about the national parks, seeks to put the funding dilemma into prospective.
“I think Congress needs to realize that the Park Service budget is just a tiny sliver of the overall federal budget. Around one-14th of 1%, I believe. And yet, the national treasures – Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Everglades, Glacier Bay, Gettysburg, etc. – that the agency is tasked with both maintaining and interpreting should be – need to be – well-preserved and maintained for future generations, and to properly fund the Park Service should neither be difficult nor seen as wasteful.”
Repanshek says the American public’s perception of government varies and for that reason so does its views toward the National Park Service.
“There are folks out there who view the Park Service as a bloated, bureaucratic agency. At the same time, there is a wide range of staffing vacancies that are concerning. For instance, Acadia National Park, despite its rich biodiversity, has no botanist on staff. The Blue Ridge Parkway, designed to showcase the Blue Ridge Mountains, has no landscape architect on staff.
Repanshek maintains that since March, “the impacts of the budget sequestration have largely been invisible to the general public. You might see reduced visitor center hours, or in parks with several visitor centers some that are closed, as well as some campground closures. Overall, park superintendents have done a fairly good job in juggling their staffing and budgets to cover visitor needs. But what goes unseen can fester significantly if let go for too long.”
Invasive species are a growing problem, and some parks don't have resources to tackle them. At Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Repanshek said, the inability of the superintendent to hire his full complement of seasonal rangers perhaps played a role in bear problems they experienced there this summer, as there was not a ranger to work on a daily basis to educate campers about bears and the necessity to keep a clean camp. In other parks, interpretive programs have been reduced.
“The Park Service is ‘making do,’ but only in the short-term and largely in the most visible areas,” he continued. “At Rocky Mountain National Park they closed the Moraine Park Visitor Center this summer. That might be an inconvenience to some, but the Visitor Center at Beaver Meadows just a short ride away was open. At Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, they juggled some maintenance funding to open a campground that was to have been closed all this summer.”
“When you consider the maintenance backlogs at the parks, the sequestration is doing real damage, as are Congress's cuts to important budget lines, such as park construction, which addresses the maintenance needs,” Repanshek said.
Friends groups, such as Friends of Acadia, are finding they have to step up to help offset some of these shortages, but that in turn affects the good work they do for the parks, he added.
He concluded, “The parks will continue to be funded to a level that allows operations to continue, but without some forceful allies in Congress the system could slowly decay if longstanding maintenance items and staffing vacancies aren't addressed. The money exists to properly fund the Park Service. Congress, and the administration, just need to make it a priority.”
Crandall and Repanshek take somewhat different approaches to the declining revenue streams at national parks. While Crandall favors modernization, Repanshek says it is not necessary.
“We don't need to transform the national parks into commercial operations, complete with Wi-Fi and full hookups at every campground. I find it somewhat suspect to hear that RV visits to the parks have waned while private campground use outside the parks has risen. Do those RVers spend those stays in the private campgrounds, or do they take day tours of the parks?
Similarly, he chides those who would expand the services at Yosemite National Park.
“The Yosemite Valley is an amazing, iconic destination, one with soaring cliffs, incredible waterfalls and a beautiful river snaking across its floor. It's one of the world's natural wonders. Do we really need ice rinks and bike and raft rentals to get visitors to enjoy this valley?”
NPS Director Jon Jarvis: “Interesting Character”
A wildcard in the discussion is Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service. “He is a very interesting character, a guy I know well,” said Crandall, who meets weekly with Jarvis. “He reflects the best of past traditions but he is increasingly seeing a different vision, a different model for the Park Service to operate.”
Jarvis recognizes that 15% to 20% of all national park visitors are from foreign countries, yet they pay the same fees as do American citizens. “We’re subsidizing international visitors to come visit us,” Crandall said.
“Maybe we could use our parks as a loss leader to get foreigners to come but we have never had a discussion whether the American taxpayer wants to subsidize a Chinese visitor,” Crandall said. “Those are debates we are now having.”
Crandall said Jarvis is “trying to unify the park community and look at the long-term picture. We need to be chess players and not checker players.”
At the Senate hearing in August, Crandall said he heard senators talking about the right things: supplementary funding for national parks, increased philanthropy, higher payments from concessioners and changes to fee policies.
For its part, one of the “Key Issues” talking points ARVC presented to members of Congress during the National Issues Conference in May pertained to “necessary funding for America’s national parks.”
ARVC stated in part, “Members recognize that America’s National Parks often are a gateway to privately-owned RV parks and campgrounds. Under federal budget sequestration, the National Park Service must implement $110 million in budget cuts over the final seven months of Fiscal Year 2013 (March through Sept. 30, 2013), requiring a reduction to visitor services, hours of operation, and shortening of seasons. ARVC supports funding for the National Park System that allows America’s National Parks to be appropriately maintained and staffed.”