Testimony for Committee on Natural Resources

Testimony for Committee on Natural Resources

Philip A. Francis, Vice Chair

Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks

P.O. Box 48092

Washington, D.C. 20002

My name is Phil Francis. I retired as Superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2013 after serving over 40 years in various national parks and regional offices around our beautiful country.   I currently serve on the Executive Council of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks whose mission is to study, educate, speak, and act for the preservation and protection of the National Park System and mission-related programs of the National Park Service.  We have over 1200 members with over 30,000 years of experience in a variety of disciplines and we are considered to be the “voices of experience.”

Thank you for providing us an opportunity to comment. We wish to congratulate the National Park Service on its centennial celebration and thank the Congress for passing the National Park Service Centennial Act.   As we move forward, we hope that we can build upon our successes and make needed improvements.

Funding for both infrastructure and staffing must be increased. Currently the NPS budget is 1/15% of the federal budget. In 1981, it was 1/8%. Major investments are needed for visitor facilities, water systems, roads and bridges, and historic properties. In order to address the backlog, large increases are required and should be provided strategically. We have learned from past mistakes that capacity for addressing our deferred maintenance and other issues must be increased first, followed by funding.   Large infusions of dollars without providing first for adequate planning and capacity building will result in an inefficient, less effective program.

Just as critical as the billions of dollars for deferred maintenance are dollars for staffing in the parks and support offices to ensure that the “backlog” does not grow and that the public’s investment is not lost.   Staffing levels have declined in all disciplines both in parks and in offices where important support and oversight are provided.

We concur with the GAO Report 17-136 issued in December 2015 where it states, “The Park Service has allocated $1.16 billion on average to maintain its assets in fiscal years 2006 through 2015, but its deferred maintenance has continued to increase. To address its maintenance needs, the agency uses tools that are consistent with asset management guidance from the Office of Management and Budget and the National Academies Federal Facilities Council. In addition, the Park Service has determined that its highest-priority assets should be considered first for funding to keep them in good condition, and park unit staff use the agency’s Capital Investment Strategy to rank and prioritize projects for funding. However, several of the regional and park unit officials we interviewed said that the focus on high-priority assets may result in continued deterioration of less-critical assets, thereby increasing deferred maintenance. The Park Service does not have a plan or time frame for evaluating whether the Capital Investment Strategy has been successful. We recognize that it may be too soon to determine if the strategy is meeting its objectives given that fiscal year 2015 was the first budget year in which projects ranked using the strategy were funded. However, evaluating the Capital Investment Strategy and its results in a few years may allow the Park Service to determine if the strategy is achieving its intended outcomes or if changes need to be made.”   In other words, since adequate funds are not available, only the most important assets receive funding while others continue to deteriorate. Adequate funds should be invested now to protect park resources to prevent further deterioration of park assets and increasing costs of repair.

Much attention is paid to the backlog.   But in addition, other park functions have felt the impact of budget reductions. Park rangers who tell the park story, who provide orientation to park visitors and help ensure that the public understand how to safely use the parks are essential to overall park health. As is our law enforcement staff who provide for protection of park resources, emergency medical services, fire protection, and the safety of park visitors. Our resource management staffs help us make better decisions and understand how our actions affect the overall health of resources and help guide our managers in the decision making process. There are other staff who provide specialized services such as engineers, planners, architects, human resource and administrative staffs, archaeologists, and others who play an important role in fulfilling our mission. All of these jobs are extremely important to the Service as they protect America’s parks. Vacancies should be filled and lost positions restored.

As our parks are economic engines for local park communities, investing in the parks will ensure that thousands of jobs will continue in tourism and supporting industries.   Shorter park seasons, reduced visitor services, and poorly maintained facilities could result in just the opposite effect to local and national economies.   For every dollar invested in parks, more than ten dollars are returned in the form of economic benefit.

Leadership and employee development is essential to growing a 21st Century workforce.   Time and energy must be invested in effective recruitment and training programs.   Reductions in travel have resulted in cuts in employee development at a time when there have been significant reductions in overall staffing levels, the very time when skilled personnel are most needed.

Improvements are needed in the oversight program within the Service.   Once an integral part of the Service’s management program, scheduled evaluation of park operations have diminished to the point that the program has been essentially abolished.   An efficient and effective program should be restored. Effective employee development and oversight will improve performance and accountability, a key to overall efficiency of operations.

The Service should always seek improved means of performing its mission. Today’s managers and supervisors have a different set of responsibilities than those of us who worked in the parks over the past several decades.   Working with partners, managing communications using contemporary social media, sharing the decision process with local communities and stakeholders, and the recent realignment of responsibilities resulting from the centralization of several functional areas have greatly increased the amount of time required to get the job done.   Superintendents are no longer able to simply focus on internal park operations. Supervisors spend more time behind their computers than ever before performing administrative tasks once performed by administrative personnel thus reducing the amount of time available on the ground supervising their staffs.

We are very concerned about the overall morale of once a very proud agency.   Budget cuts and reduced staff, increased work assignments, lack of employee development and accountability, an aging workforce, and the perception that the future may be more of the same have moved the agency from one of the best places to work in government to a place much lower on the list.   The NPS has lost over 1700 FTEs and cannot afford additional losses.   Responsibilities have increased. The number of assets to manage and maintain remain the same at about 75,000.   And as mentioned previously, visitation is at an all-time high. Staff shortages have resulted in unacceptable conditions.   For example, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of its most visited areas, Clingman’s Dome with 2,000,000 visitors annually, has no permanent employees assigned on full-time basis.   The Blue Ridge Parkway is the NPS most visited park with over 15,000,000 visitors per year and with 14 visitor centers, yet there are fewer than 10 full-time employees to operate the centers. One popular site along the Parkway, the Cone Manor Estate, receives over 400,000 visitors annually and has no permanent employees fully assigned to the site that is used for most of year. At Acadia National Park, visitation has risen by 55% since 2006 yet the budget for the park has declined by 8%. There are many more of these examples around the country. Park managers have pursued a variety of alternatives to mitigate impacts to visitors’ experience and impacts to resources.   Volunteers, partnerships with fundraising organizations, and organizations such as the Student Conservation Association are widely used.   Use of new technologies has allowed the Service to reach the public in new and creative ways. And outreach to non-traditional park users have been extensive to ensure that all Americans are aware of and use their parks.

More can be done to improve the efficiency of park operations. Use of new innovation, changes to processes and procedures, additional efforts to train and empower staff, and a focus on core responsibilities are all needed as parts of a comprehensive effort to move the Service forward.

We urge the Congress to make the investment necessary to appropriately fund the parks – to make them great again. After all, previous cuts have taken place.   The fat is gone. We are cutting bone now and one day we will pay the price as the cost of repairs will increase as our parks continue to degrade. Donors have told me they can give no more.   Partnerships, volunteerism, and creative ways of doing business can help, but are no panacea.

We believe that the National Park Service is worth the investment. It is an investment in America’s future that protects our special places and provides tens of thousands of jobs for those who live nearby.   The 300 million people who visit our parks each year will be grateful.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

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