Investing in Our National Park Service: A Proposal for the Transition Team
Today’s Challenge: Now celebrating its 100th anniversary, the national parks remain what American author Wallace Stegner once called America’s Best Idea. Our parks enjoy bi- partisan support and are a model for park systems around the globe. By any measure, the idea is a success. But, as we mark the centennial, it is timely to ask this question: will the System continue to serve its intended purpose in a new century? Will it remain effective and popular in the next fifty or one hundred years? We are a different people than we were in 1916, 1966, or even 15 years ago. We communicate differently, use technology differently, learn differently, travel and recreate differently, and our economy has changed in fundamental ways. How will the National Park Service meet these challenges and remain current, responsive, and popular to all Americans?
The State of Our National Parks: National parks are valued by all our citizens and are enjoyed by over 300 million visitors; they are proven economic engines generating $16.9 billion annually in visitor spending and $32 billion in impact on the national economy. Yet, today parks are challenged by aging infrastructure. Substantial investments are needed in visitor centers, transportation, water systems, and telecommunications. Funding is also needed for staff to address issues of public safety, overcrowding, and facility maintenance. The National Park Service is an important partner to both states and local communities providing access to healthy outdoor recreation and revitalizing communities using cost effective partnership strategies. Finally, to continue its tradition of good work, the National Park Service needs reinvigorated leadership and close attention to its work force development.
Coalition Recommendations: The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks has prepared three papers with recommendations to address the most critical issues facing our parks in the next four years. These issues are Effective Leadership and Development, Funding for Infrastructure and Staffing, and Partnership Opportunities.
The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks: The Coalition is comprised of nearly 1,200 current, former, and retired National Park Service employees. It represents nearly 30,000 collective years of professional experience protecting and managing some of our nation’s most beloved and significant natural, heritage, and recreational places in every state and territory. The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks is a not for profit, 501(c)(3) organization.
Transition Recommendations: Funding for Infrastructure and Staffing
From the Statue of Liberty to the Yosemite Valley, visitation to our national parks has been surging with 307 million visitors in 2015 and likely more in 2016, the service’s Centennial year. Of the 40 million overseas visitors to United States over one third visit national parks. Visitors value the opportunity to learn America’s stories, participate in healthy outdoor recreation and gain inspiration from the national park experience.
Visitation to national parks is also big business, with an estimated $32 billion economic benefit to local communities. Recent studies show that tourism expenditures supported a total of 295.3 thousand jobs. The lodging sector saw the highest direct contributions with $5.2 billion in economic output followed by food service, which contributed $3.4 billion. These benefits ripple across of our country’s economy.
Invest in Park Infrastructure
A major reinvestment in our national parks is long overdue. High visitor demand and aging infrastructure is catching up with the park system. The service has a staggering inventory of 86,000 assets, many of them priceless treasures, and manages over 84 million acres of land. Much of the existing park infrastructure is over fifty years old. The cost of rehabilitation or replacing visitor facilities, water systems, roadways and bridges, and restoring historic properties is estimated in the billions of dollars. The fact is – funding for the parks has not kept pace with the growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the expansion of the park system now numbering 413 park units, and the increases in visitation.
There are significant opportunities to develop innovative funding approaches including public/private partnerships, skilled job training programs, and leveraging funding from the philanthropic sector. However, public investment is an essential part of rebuilding the infrastructure of our parks. Such an investment would provide multiple benefits: supporting the tourism industry that is lifeblood of many states and local communities, providing jobs in both the construction and specialized crafts sector, and leaving a tangible legacy for future generations.
- Tackle non-transportation infrastructure needs by increasing appropriation over 3 years to a total of $750 million.
- When the Highway Trust Fund is reauthorized, the National Park Service portion should be raised to $750 million.
- Protect the investment in park infrastructure by doubling the budget for repair, rehabilitation and cyclic maintenance from $ 200 million to $400 million annually.
- Take advantage of the public private partnerships opportunities presented by the historic leasing program as a way to rehabilitate historic buildings that are a significant portion of the park system’s deferred maintenance inventory.
Protect and Maintain Our Parks
As the popularity of the parks as a tourism destination rises, the agency must respond to challenges beyond just investing in infrastructure. More national park rangers are required to meet the needs of visitor use and protection as well as to respond to emergencies and a prolonged fire season. Additional maintenance staff is needed to prevent future deterioration of park facilities and to care for any new investments. The people and funding to meet these needs have been lost in all park areas of operation -maintenance, interpretation, resources management, and visitor protection. Since 2001 the National Park Service operational budget has been reduced by approximately $500 million dollars. At the park level this translates into a loss of park staff of approximately 1,500 fulltime employees.
Recommendation: Propose restoring staff levels to, at a minimum, their FY 2010 levels, more than 10% above 2015 staffing levels.
Transition Recommendations: Partnership Opportunities
The National Park Service (NPS) has an opportunity to leverage the park experience by effectively using its long standing programs that support the work of its state partners as well as private landowners and community conservation organizations. The NPS can use its iconic brand, its powerful interpretive messages, and its many well-regarded partnership programs to offer healthy outdoor recreation, tell America’s stories, and enhance economic vitality in states and local communities.
For these reasons it is important to:
Fully Fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund
Funded from off shore oil and gas receipts, non-taxpayer dollars, this program assists in the conservation of critical federal lands for resource conservation and supports state partners in the planning and development of parks and other recreational assets. In our national parks these funds can be used to acquire inholdings and fill in mandated park boundaries to protect resources and benefit the visiting public. At the state level, the fund has leveraged millions of dollars, created thousands of local parks, and conserved land for outdoor sports and public recreation.
Recommendation: Full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund to complete national parks and to support state initiatives for open space conservation and recreation.
Fully and Permanently Fund the National Historic Preservation Fund
The Historic Preservation Fund uses receipts from off shore oil and gas receipts, non-tax payer dollars, to partner with States and Tribes to provide cost effective preservation strategies. This includes the Historic Tax Credit, which over the past three decades has created 2.3 million jobs, leveraged $117 billion in investment, and rehabilitated more than 41,250 buildings. Investments in historic preservation help conserve historic properties and revitalize both our urban and rural communities.
Recommendation: Full funding for the Historic Preservation Fund to help recognize, preserve, and utilize our nation’s historic resources for community revitalization.
Pass Program Legislation and Fund the National Heritage Areas
The National Heritage Area approach has a thirty-year track record of developing strong regional partnerships for resource conservation and community prosperity. Today there are 49 National Heritage Areas from Alabama to Alaska. Program legislation has been introduced with bi-partisan support for over a decade and now is the time to make a push for its passage.
- Funding should be maintained at the congressionally appropriated levels of 19.3 million in FY 2017 with increases in the future to support the growth of the
- Support the passage of program authorization for National Heritage Areas.
Support Strategic Partnerships Around Recreation and Trails
Programs like the National Scenic and Historic Trails and the Rivers, Trails and Conservation program reach out and connect partners across the country around the idea of recreational access and resource conservation.
Recommendation: Target the benefits of this program to work with partners at federal, state and local level to improve community recreation and resource conservation.
Transition Recommendations: Effective Leadership and Development
As the National Park Service enters a new century of protecting and managing our nation’s precious natural and cultural resources, clearly dramatic Human Resource and training/development changes will need to be instituted to meet future needs, continuing to ensure our nation’s national parks continue to be “America’s best idea.” Our recommendations are as follows:
Hire and Develop a Workforce Reflective of the Strength and Diversity of America
Analyze current workforce and devise methods for transitioning to a workforce reflective of the country’s diversity. Reinstate the HBCU partnerships. Establish partnerships to transition hiring practices. Support and develop new hires by grounding in NPS law, regulations and policy, as well as overall orientation to NPS.
Ensure Supervisors and Managers Receive Necessary Fundamental Training/Development
Identify areas of development to include essential Human Resource management/regulations, grounding in law/ regulations/policies, to enable managers to provide the training/development to their employees, continue new Superintendents course/roundtable, expanding to include potential future leaders. Provide employees with overall mission and purpose training (currently Park Rangers receive significant training, but exclusively in law enforcement).
Provide Orientation Training for All Employees to Include Mission and Purpose, as well as Expectation of Employees
Park Superintendents and Managers have been elevated without basic knowledge of leadership responsibility, government, laws, regulations and policies covering the National Park Service and other environmental laws. This knowledge should be instilled at the beginning of employment and throughout one’s career and required when one is considered for supervisory and leadership positions.
Review Organizational Structure
Consolidating specialty functions at the Central Office level has proven counterproductive. Review the organization and revamp to ensure human resource, administrative, investigative functions are close to the field level. This will allow the immediate addressing, investigation and correction of problems within the organization.
Zero Tolerance means Zero Tolerance
Clearly, this has not been the policy with current management. Managers are responsible for disciplining and removing employees for misconduct and poor performance using appropriate tools. All managers need to receive training/ development to equip them to address and correct employee misconduct/poor performance.
Utilize Partnerships to Achieve Goals
The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, as well as other organizations (Outdoor Afro, Next 100 Coalition, Hispanic Access Foundations, Latino Outdoors, etc.), are natural partners for achieving leadership and development excellence. The Coalition is comprised of many senior (retired) NPS managers who are able to mentor and develop new managers and provides short-term coverage for vacant managerial positions.
Ensure Director, Regional Directors and Senior Leaders Understand Expectations
The senior leadership of the National Park Service should be setting the example of bold leadership. Resources should and must be protected. Laws must be followed. These expectations must be reinforced in future management.
For further information, contact: Maureen Finnerty, Chair, Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, Maureen_Finnerty@protectnps.org, (571) 271-1433.