By Ben Radding
The National Park Service is in some serious trouble. Despite National Parks being more popular than ever, the NPS faces a nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog due to not having the staff or the means to make the necessary repairs and upkeep. Still, the Trump administration is looking to cut costs wherever it can, including a proposed 12 percent cut to the Department of Interior’s budget. How do you make up the backlog and cut costs? It’s been floated in Washington that contractors might be the answer. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke himself has said that he would be receptive to more contractors in an effort to save money. He told a lobbying group, “As the secretary, I don’t want to be in the business of running campgrounds.”
Contractors, seasonal workers, and others who are hired on a short-term basis certainly have their place in the NPS. But can they place full-time employees? Many are skeptical. Chief among them is The Coalition To Protect America’s National Parks. In a recent letter to Zinke, the group wrote, “The reality is that parks are understaffed and the rangers who perform the basic services that would be taken over by concessioners are often the only contact visitors have in those campgrounds with these popular public servants.”
We talked to Phil Francis, Vice Chair of The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks and former superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway — a life-long Parks Service man — about contractors, their place in the NPS, and why simply hiring more is shortsighted for the long-term health of our national parks.
In your time at Blue Ridge Parkways, when did you use contractors? Every day. Really, there are several different categories of contractors: Those who operate lodges, gift shops, and so forth under concessions contracts; motel rooms, restaurants, service gasoline stations and the like; and contractors who we hire to do work for the National Park Service — repaving roads, painting buildings, doing utility work, and so forth.
What are some of the difficulties in hiring contractors — especially when the Park Service is already so understaffed? Every contract requires specifications to be written. It requires oversight. We have to make sure it’s exactly what we want, what we need, and make sure the contract terms are adhered to. We have contracting officers. We have people who make payments on a periodic basis to contractors. There has to be some administration of that contract, writing the specs, making sure people adhere to the contract specs. Going through competitive negotiations. Doing the analysis to make sure there’s a reasonable opportunity to make profit. There’s a lot to it, and it requires a support staff.
What about a contractor’s relationship with the land itself? It’s been mixed. I think that in our case, our employees are really dedicated to our mission to protect and preserve the natural and cultural resources and the wildlife they’re in by such means and in such manners to leave them intact for future generations. Contractors come with a job to do, and their blood isn’t quite as green sometimes as our own employees who are very dedicated to providing for great customer service, taking care of visitors, protecting our resources, making sure that those resources are here for tomorrow. That’s not to say that we never have that, because we do. I have worked with some contractors who are very dedicated. But I would say that I would have to give the edge to our own employees. One of the things that our employees provide continually is that institutional memory that has passed from generation to generation of employee. It happens very subtly, and it happens every day. Contractors, on the other hand—they may have a contract for six months, a year, five years, ten years maybe if they’re a concessioner. Contractors come and go.
How often do full-time employees stay in the Park Service? I hear stories today about workers changing jobs and maybe not sticking with their company for their entire career. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I know that I was expected to work my entire career with the National Parks and I have many friends who felt the same way. When we joined we were in it for the long run. We love that mission. We believe it’s an important mission. There have been articles written about our employees being paid in sunsets because they care so much for the work that we do. It’s helping to protect someone’s life, emergency rescue services, the law enforcement side of it, protecting our natural resources or these historic objects.
In terms of the work itself — maintaining, policing, concessions — are full-timers more useful? Let’s say that there’s a forest fire, or an emergency hurricane, or an earthquake. It’s always nice for the manager to have that flexibility to call upon people that work in a different discipline who may have, a lot of times, on their own, gone out and acquired the skills they need to fight a fire, to respond to an earthquake, who knows the infinite command system, who is a planner for an emergency like Hurricane Katrina or an oil spill. That flexibility is really important. We find that contractors don’t typically provide for that same flexibility.
Why do you think maintaining our national parks is important, even if the park doesn’t generate gobs of cash? There needs to be places in this country that aren’t commercialized. I have no problem with people making a profit. I appreciate and understand and respect that. The purpose of our National Parks is to leave these places unimpaired, to protect them. It’s not to make a profit. It’s to provide a service to the public.