National Parks are one of the nation’s most valuable resources. They provide sanctuary for millions of animals, many of whom are endangered, and preserve the land’s natural beauty. They also provide people with a place to wind down and get away from urban sprawl and hectic city life.
However, these national treasures are themselves endangered by recent budget restrictions that caused the Park Service to tell superintendents of national parks to cut down on services without letting the public know.
These cuts call for closing certain small, historic sites a couple days a week, shutting visitor centers on federal holidays and winter months, closing parks Sundays and Mondays and eliminating all guided ranger tours and lifeguards at some beaches.
The Associated Press reported that the message to superintendents was disclosed by an association of retired National Park Service employees. The group released a memo e-mailed last month to park superintendents in the Northeast from the Park Service’s Boston office.
The disclosure came when a parks advocacy group issued a report claiming that America’s national parks are being underfunded by as much as $600 million a year, forcing severe cuts that threaten resources and undermine visitors’ enjoyment.
Also in the memo was a plea from officials asking for employees to advise them if any controversy over the cuts arise, in an effort to avoid public backlash. According to the Associated Press, the Feb. 20 memo sent by Chrysandra Walter, the Park Service’s deputy director for the Northeast region, read, “If you think that some of your specific plans will cause a public or political controversy, Marie and I need to know which ones are likely to end up in the media or result in a congressional inquiry.”
Walter was referring to Marie Rust, the Park Service’s director for the Northeast region, who is based in Philadelphia. Walter also wrote that she was relaying instructions from Randy Jones, the Park Service’s deputy director.
“Randy felt that the issuance of a press release was the most problematic,” she wrote.
“He suggested that if you feel you must inform the public … not to directly indicate that ‘this is a cut’ in comparison to last year’s operation,” she continued. “We all agreed to use the terminology of ‘service level adjustment’ due to fiscal constraints as a means of describing what actions we are taking.”
Although the Park Service’s budget has steadily increased during the Bush, Clinton and previous administrations, it has had serious set backs in the past few years. It has had to pay $50 million in firefighting costs and $150 million in repair costs from Hurricane Isabel last year.
Also, the cost of Homeland Security is taking its toll. Each change in the color-coded threat level from yellow to orange costs the Park Service $1 million a month. That pays for 200 law enforcement rangers from the West to guard monuments and memorials in the East, according the National Park Service spokesman, Dave Barna. Barna does not deny the authenticity of the memo, or denounce its approach to quieter cutbacks, as he said he only wished to avoid a public relations fiasco.
In mid-March, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) issued a report entitled “Endangered Rangers,” which estimated that the parks are getting just two-thirds of the funding they need, leading to staffing shortages and the deterioration of park facilities.
However, the problems are more serious than a few cancelled nature tours and leaky roofs. Animals and artifacts are endangered by this lack of staff and security in parks where hundreds of positions are unstaffed.
According to the report, American Indian artifacts are being stolen from Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico while museum collections are piled in offices at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana or in a basement at Acadia National Park in Maine.
Black bears are being poached in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, rare plants are being stolen from Great Smokey Mountains National Park and Mount Rainer National Park in Washington does not have the funding to monitor its endangered species.
School groups are turned away from parks, including Yellowstone. Some parks are so understaffed that a lottery system decides which children will be privy to park lectures and tours.
Illegal drugs are trafficked through Coronado National Memorial in Arizona and cultivated at Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks in California.
The report also added that other facilities suffer. The lack of funds also hinders law enforcement, detracts from ranger-guided programs and is forcing some parks to close visitor centers or clean bathrooms less often.
NPCA recommended a number of short-term possibilities to alleviate problems, including seeking donations from private companies, partnering with volunteer groups and allowing parks to keep more of the fees they collect at entry gates.
But in the longterm, the group said Congress will have to increase annual funding by at least $600 million, provide homeland security funding to offset costs that have been incurred since 9/11 and The National Park Service must make available the tools and training needed to maximize the effectiveness of park managers.
The Web site, npca.org, has a copy of the report that can be viewed online, and a link for people to e-mail Congress and the current administration, urging them to give this issue much-needed attention.