NPT Editor’s note: Without adequate funding, you can’t quickly repair your leaking roof, or hire enough employees to meet your customers’ needs and demands. At the National Park Service, the lack of adequate funding across the board threatens the agency’s mission, landing the issue of park funding on National Parks Traveler’s 3rd Annual Threatened and Endangered Parks list.
A veritable flood of dollars – literally billions – is flowing into the National Park System to address maintenance projects long overdue for attention, but as heartening as that influx is, there’s still an imbalance in how the National Park Service is funded that goes beyond bricks and asphalt.
One example is that the bulk of the maintenance spending is heading towards brand-name parks. Indeed, scroll through the first 50 projects funded through the Great American Outdoors Act, legislation designed intentionally to address the park system’s maintenance backlog, and you’ll see multiple projects funded for Blue Ridge Parkway, Yosemite, Shenandoah, Mount Rainier, Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.
Projects proposed for Fiscal 2022 also seem tilted towards larger parks: Glacier National Park (multiple funded projects), Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Everglades, Mammoth Cave, Blue Ridge Parkway (multiple), Great Smoky Mountains, Big Bend (multiple), Yellowstone (multiple).
“I would say the Service has made a decision on priorities, which is spend the money in the bigger parks, where you can actually get more bang for your buck,” one superintendent told the Traveler on background. “There’s a huge Catch-22 in this organization, which is, the larger the park, the higher the capacity of the park, to not just spend the money but to identify good projects. Most parks don’t have a professional architectural and engineering and contracting staff. And so, there’s no question there’s needs in the small parks, but their ability to actually execute is less [than found at parks such as Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite.]”
For seven decades, at least, the National Park Service has struggled to keep fiscally fit as parks, monuments, seashores and other units have been added to the park system without requisite funding accompanying their establishment, and the conflict continues despite the billions of dollars now flooding into the agency.
Together the Great American Outdoors Act [$6.5 billion over five years for the Park Service] and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act [possibly more than $1 billion for the agency] promise the largest fiscal infusion into the park system since the Mission 66 program, if not ever. Those two measures are providing much needed funds for the Park Service to address backlogged maintenance needs, replace structurally deficient bridges, patch roads, devise ecosystem restoration projects, modernize wastewater treatment plants, and even work to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions.
But the glowing vision projected by the billions of dollars is filtered by realities on the ground and agency priorities that could deprive some smaller units of much-needed funding.
Part of the disparity can be traced to the priority given to projects that are ready to go, and projects that have been delayed due to insufficient funds. And not all the funds are heading to larger parks, as Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Washington state has gotten nearly $20 million to rehabilitate its barracks and surrounding grounds, Saratoga National Historical Park in New York received more than $6 million to rehabilitate its self-guided battlefield Tour Road, and San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico received roughly $8 million to stabilize the cliff at San Fernando Bastion.
Nevertheless, the excitement over approved projects is tempered by the simple fact that maintenance is forever.
“The infusion of funds will of course be enormously helpful. The infrastructure bill will just help add onto what GAOA has provided,” said John Garder, the National Parks Conservation Association’s senior director for budget and appropriations. “But bear in mind, those funds are gradual increases over a finite number of years and not in perpetuity. And of course, GAOA infrastructure funding is only for four more years.
“Both bills are time-bound and the backlog is not,” he added. “This is going to help them knock out a lot of the most pressing projects, including some really big ones that have been lingering for years. The trick is going to be keeping a steady funding stream going to knock out more of the backlog.”
Professor Robert Keiter, the Wallace Stegner Professor of Law at the University of Utah who long has observed, and written about, the National Park Service and the parks, agreed that full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 2020 and the deferred maintenance funding “was an initial step toward improving NPS funding, and should help to address a portion of the deferred maintenance problems.”
But Keiter noted, as did Garder, that the GAOA funding lasts for just five years unless Congress renews it.
“So further political support will be necessary,” said the professor. “The recent upsurge in visitation can help to convince Congress to direct more funding toward the national parks; the gateway and other local communities benefit greatly from such tourism and should help to support additional park funding and should have the ear of local congressional delegations. Funding proponents must continue to promote this agenda as a bi-partisan issue.”
Things Appeared Worse 70 Years Ago
The billions of dollars from the GAOA and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act won’t solve all the problems across the park system; the GAOA addresses only about half of the roughly $12 billion in backlogged maintenance needs (Note: The National Park Service no longer reveals the annual dollar amount of the backlog).
But the portrait of underfunded national parks perhaps is no longer as bleak as it was 70 years ago.
The New York Times in 1953 was so intrigued by the state of the park system that it ran a four-part series on the state of the parks, focused largely on Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here are some of the headlines:
- Inadequate Funds and Personnel Bedevil Great Smoky National Park
- Foremost U.S. National Park in Terms of Visitors Finds Curtailment Necessary
- Roads in Good Condition, But Some Trails Have Become Impassable In Years Of Park’s Low Income
At one point the author wrote that, “[T]he very popularity of the parks is threatening their existence. They are right now in the process of being loved to death by the American people.”
That article kicked off a short, but nationally significant, review of the state of the parks, and it was not flattering. Historian Bernard DeVoto, in a Harper’s Magazine article in 1953, wrote that, “[T]he National Park System must be temporarily reduced to a size for which Congress is willing to pay. Let us, as a beginning, close Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Canyon national parks. Close and seal them, assign the Army to patrol them, and so hold them secure till they can be reopened. …”
Two years later, 1955, Sports Illustrated turned to Wallace Stegner, a prominent environmentalist and historian, to evaluate the park system, and he didn’t pull his punches. In a story titled We Are Destroying Our National Parks, Stegner wrote:
“[O]ur parks are like a child whose teeth have been neglected. Look at that smile, we say. See how white and pretty? Hardly any decay showing. But keep her away from the dentist another few years. Let maintenance and construction be postponed as they have been ever since the stand-by years of World War II. Put off renovating the museums, do without the extra rangers and naturalists. Don’t bother moving the campgrounds, though they ought to be moved about as often as a turkey run, and for similar reasons. Let it all go, and pretty soon we will not ask the child to smile.”
Leap into the 21st century and the picture, initially, seems more promising.
“For a decade prior to my service as director, visitation had been basically flat and the attitude in Congress was that why would the NPS need more money if visitation was not growing?” recalled Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service under President Obama. “Simplistic view but pervasive on the Hill. The [National Park Service] Centennial [in 2016] bumped up visitation, and now we see Congress responding with increased funding. This is a typical lag effect that happened in the past when there was a recognized ‘crisis’ such as noted by DeVoto.”
There’s no doubting that Congress has responded for the immediate future. But then what?
“The Great American Outdoors Act is money to address the maintenance backlog, which builds up because we don’t have sufficient ongoing year-to-year appropriations,” pointed out Margaret Walls, a senior fellow at the Resources For the Future. “So, it’s going to be around for five years, and they’re going to spend that money and fix some things up, and then, unless we deal with the long-run problems, I think we’re back where we started.”
Walls, who has written extensively on parks and conservation funding, said that while she hasn’t taken a deep dive into the infrastructure bill, “what I have found is it seems to be for some other very specific kinds of expenditures. I’m sure that’s the case to some extent because it’s an infrastructure bill. It’s not an appropriations bill. I guess I feel like these are Band-aids. I mean, they’re big Band-aids (but) I think they’re still Band-aids.”
Process Can Delay Projects
A problem with the GAOA funding is that there can be significant delays between the time a project is identified and gets funded.
“Construction is an intensive linear process, as in 1) planning, 2) design, and 3) construction. Good construction and reliable estimates only come from completed preliminary design,” said Deny Galvin, a former deputy director of the Park System. “The problem in the early years of a multi-year process such as GAOA is to find projects that have some design to determine their scope. I want to emphasize that the problem is in the early years. Politically, the difficulty is that everybody expects construction to start immediately. Audits done in that period find bad estimates and unobligated balances. As the program advances and design starts to inform the process, estimates improve, and construction obligations get rolling. So, it’s important to focus on the multiyear nature of the program.”
Galvin agreed with the superintendent above who questioned whether the Park Service has the teams in place needed to design projects, process contracts, and oversee the work.
“The Denver Service Center [which handles most of the project planning] will be critical to program success; the parks don’t have the capacity to handle projects of this magnitude,” he said. “With respect to the capacity issue, the DSC has become a contracting office; the expansion required will be done principally through private firms. Since GAOA preceded the big infrastructure bill, the industry capacity might not be an issue in the early period, but as the latter bill rolls out everybody will be letting contracts and industry capacity might become a problem.”
Marcia Argust is optimistic the two pots of money will greatly help the National Park Service get a better handle on its budgetary quandary.
“The public has successfully fought for the repair and restoration of parks when they’ve needed it the most,” said Argust, who directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public lands and rivers conservation program. “We’re hopeful park facilities and resources will soon be on sound footing. If Congress again lags in its attention to our nation’s treasures, the public will be there again.”
Spending On Human Capital
There is, however, another aspect that largely has been overshadowed by the billions intended to repair the parks, one that could keep the park system from living up to the National Park Service Organic Act: Lack of investment in human capital. While billions are being made available for the maintenance of the National Park System, there’s been no similar influx for employees.
“A better choice in analyzing park budgets is the cost of an employee,” explained Galvin. “Parks are almost all salary (75-90 percent) so comparing cost growth of [full-time equivalent staff] vs. park budgets yields some interesting results. From 2001 to 2018 the cost of a [full-time employee] grew from $59,000 to $100,000 per year, while the sum of all park funding grew from $907,000,000 to $1,327,000,000.
“So, the parks’ major cost grew by 70 percent while their budget grew 46 percent. If superintendents absorbed all this shortfall by not hiring people, a likely scenario, it amounts to a reduction of over 2,200 FTEs,” he said. “The numbers support the superintendents’ oft-stated claim that they have fewer people than they used to. The reduction represented by 2,200 FTE is 14 percent.”
The administration’s Build Back Better legislation does contain funds for park staffing, but it’s in limbo as U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin has refused to support it in its current form, and Senate Democrats need his vote to approve it. According to Kristen Brengel, senior vice president for government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association, the measure contains $1 billion over ten years for park staffing.
“That is transformational. That will help the Park Service hire the scientists, the contractors, people with expertise to be able to fulfill the needs of the park system that are coming up,” she said. “These things need to work in tandem with each other. The appropriations bill needs to pass with the additional funds for staffing, and the Build Back Better bill needs to pass in order to create this new capacity.”
Keep The Funds Flowing
The obvious solution to the parks’ funding woes is for Congress to keep increasing funding for the National Park Service.
“The budget shortfall is really in three categories, and the recent acts of Congress only address two of the three: general maintenance backlog of assets in the [Federal Management Software System] and roads,” said Jarvis. “Approximately one half of the $11 billion backlog are roads and bridges, so the infrastructure bill, with funding to the Federal Highways Administration, will make a big dent in that problem. The GAOA addresses the other assets like old utility systems, life and safety of buildings, trails, etc.
“Then there is the issue of annual operations [ONPS], which is still subject to the annual request of the President/Secretary of Interior, and the action of the Congress. [President Donald] Trump proposed a 20 percent cut in the budget, but Congress actually increased the funding,” he noted. “The recent investments from Congress have been a long time coming and are what we hoped for from the strong emphasis on the Centennial, educating the Congress about the maintenance backlog and the ramp up of visitation.”
At Pew, Argust was optimistic the GAOA funding would “enable NPS to draw down its multi-billion-dollar maintenance backlog to a manageable level, after decades of unmet repairs have grown worse and costs have compounded.”
However, she added continued funding to address maintenance needs, “and policy reforms that promote partnerships, revenue generation opportunities, new technologies, and cost efficiencies” are needed to prevent the problem from mushrooming again.
What shouldn’t happen, Keiter said, is for the public to become resigned to the fact that Park Service will never have enough money to adequately maintain what’s been called America’s Best Idea.
“Given the importance of the National Park System in our civic life and culture, we should expect and demand better. We need to build a broad-based constituency prepared to advocate for parks, both at the national and local level,” he said. “Advocacy groups like NPCA and support groups like the [National Park Foundation] can help, both promoting political support and providing supplemental funding to address unmet park needs. We also should be looking at additional new revenue sources from those who use the parks, something like the oft-proposed ‘backpack’ tax modeled on the national wildlife refuge system funding model.”
Walls at Resources For the Future has studied the “backpack” tax and said a 5 percent excise tax on backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, and hiking boots, just to name four items, “would raise about $4.6 billion [a year] by my calculations,” she said. “That’s bigger than the Park Service budget.”
Phil Francis, the outgoing chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, said such a tax isn’t a bad idea.
“It’s been considered before. I think the question is how do you divide it? You have Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, state parks, local parks. How do you distribute that?” he wondered. “Anything like that is certainly worth consideration and maybe giving it a try. It’s not, unlike to me, personalized license plates on cars, where part of the money to buy those license plates goes back to the parks. That has made a big difference in some parks.”
Both Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway have realized “hundreds of thousands of dollars” from such programs, said Francis.
“Those are nice supplemental ways of funding needs, but you really can’t use those kinds of moneys to hire staff because of the uncertainty of how much money will be coming from one year to the next,” he said. “So you can’t hire a permanent person, and then all of a sudden the money is gone. That puts pressure on the rest of the budget.”
Raising the same amount by increasing park entrance fees would require some breath-taking numbers, numbers that the public and politicians likely wouldn’t tolerate. After then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed surge-pricing for entrance fees at 17 national parks in a move to try to eat away at the park system’s maintenance backlog, it died following widespread opposition.
Into this funding dilemma steps Charles Sams, the recently sworn-in director of the National Park Service. During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sams said his top priority would be raising employee morale. More money for salaries and improved housing aren’t the only factors that would improve employee morale, but they certainly would be steps in the right direction.
Let’s see if Congress will help him.