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Trying Times For National Park Service Funding

By Kurt Repanshek – November 12th, 2023

It was just over a month ago when the federal government was staring at the possibility of a shutdown. Little seemingly has changed in the ensuing weeks, other than that the U.S. House of Representatives has a new speaker in Mike Johnson from Louisiana, and the Republican-controlled chamber has settled on its budget numbers for fiscal 2024, which started on October 1. 

While most national parks likely will close to a certain degree if there is a government shutdown on Friday, what is more pressing for the National Park Service is what budget numbers Congress will settle on for the current fiscal year and whether President Biden will go along with them.

“The [House] majority doesn’t currently appear to have a plan, nothing that’s public,” John Garder, senior director for budget and appropriations at the National Parks Conservation Association, said when asked whether there would be a shutdown. “There was a meeting that was described to be maybe not productive by those who were there. The speaker says he has a plan. Nothing has been presented yet. Hopefully, we’ll see something this week. And hopefully, it will be something that is palatable not just to a majority of folks in the House as well as park advocates and other Americans who care a lot about keeping the government open, but also the Senate and the White House.

“A plan has been floated to have a ladder-type of arrangement that would involve different expiration dates for different parts of the government. I don’t know if anything like that’s ever been proposed. It was received poorly on the Hill by folks in both parties, including appropriators, I think. It doesn’t appear to be a tangible plan and would cause a lot of complications.”

The fiscal knots that are tightening around Congress not only throw a wrench into National Park Service operations, but they’re demoralizing, said Mike Murray, who long worked for the Park Service and now is chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.

“It’s demoralizing, because you don’t have any certainty about what money you have to spend, particularly on staffing for the next year,” said Murray, who joined Garder on the National Parks Traveler’s podcast this week to discuss the fiscal situation facing the Park Service and Park System. “Looking back at [Interior] Secretary’s letter to the ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee [earlier this year], in the Park Service overall budget, 55-60 percent is spent on staff. So if you lose even a small percentage of money, you have a superintendent who has very limited options of how to make up the difference. It usually hones in on cutting seasonal staffing because there’s more flexibility to make adjustments there than with permanent staffing.”

The funding levels the House released last week would be crippling if the Senate and White House went along with them, said Murray.

“The numbers being talked about in the recent House Appropriations Bill are unrealistic. I’m not a politician. It’s hard to take the numbers seriously. They are so far removed from what the agreement between the [Biden} administration reached with Congress earlier this year for spending. So in my mind, the numbers appear to just be a messaging strategy, you know, hardball negotiations, etc. I would say that any significant cut in the Park Service budget would be serious.”

As narrowly passed by the House on Friday, 213-203, the Park Service budget would be cut 13 percent, or roughly half-a-billion dollars, according to Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee. The Fish and Wildlife Service budget is facing a 13.6 percent ($237 million) cut; the BLM a 17.5 percent ($255 million) cut; and the U.S. Forest Service an 8 percent ($255 million) cut, according to the Democrats.

“Between 2012 and 2022, Park Service staffing was reduced by 10 percent,” Murray said. “So if they cut the budget, and let’s say the Park Service loses another 1,000 positions, that’s on top of a significant reduction over the last 10 years. So that compounds the difficulties that parks will face. It’s undeniable that park visitation is increasing. But park staffing is going to be an extreme challenge for park operations. Superintendents have limited options for making up a 5 or 10 percent reduction in their budgets.”

Garder added that the House measure carries a “more than 50 percent” cut to the Park Service’s line-item construction budget, “which would prevent quite a number of construction projects from happening, further contributing to the deferred maintenance backlog.”

The NPCA official said the House numbers would result in a 9 percent cut to park operations funding and likely would lead to minimal seasonal hiring during the busy seasons, and reduced hours or closed park facilities. While the Senate budget numbers are more encouraging, said Garder, they still are meager for the agency.

“They’ve done their best with an austere allocation to write a bill that’s good for parks and the other things that they need to cover, but they have a lot of obligations for other things like tribal support and wildfires,” said Garder during the podcast. “And so there’s only so much to work with in the Park Service budget. The operating budget is somewhere in the neighborhood of a $15 million increase, but that doesn’t cover fixed costs, primarily a 5.2 percent federal pay raise that’s slated to go through. It’s long overdue for park staff who are increasingly having trouble affording housing and making ends meet, like so many Americans, but that’s going to have to come from somewhere.”

One park superintendent told the Traveler that parks will have to pay for the 5.2 percent raise through existing funding, that there won’t be additional monies coming to cover it. Funding also will need to be found to cover raises for park employees such as maintenance workers who are not covered by the GS, or general schedule, pay levels.

Murray, whose last position with the Park Service was superintendent of Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, said the “first place superintendents have to look, because there’s no other option, really, is discretionary programs, supplies, materials, and seasonal staffing. Because seasonal staff, you can just hire fewer people, and then you save some money.”

“There’re different strategies,” he continued. “I’ve worked for superintendents who I thought took bold steps. And when they had to absorb significant budget cuts, they’d close something, like they closed one of the 10 campgrounds at Yellowstone or whatever park I happen to be in, so that the effect of the budget shortfall was visible to the public. You also have a lot of superintendents that do the death by 1,000 cuts. So they whittle away here and there, sort of try to keep everything open, but maybe slightly reduced hours or use more volunteer staffing. And on the surface, it may seem like the park is getting by with less money. But there’s usually some deterioration and conditions, either less maintenance, fewer programs, whatever it may be. So personally, I think the better move for management is if they have to absorb a 10 percent cut is close something, make it visible.”

Beyond personnel and maintenance impacts, the proposed funding cuts would ripple throughout the Park Service’s work.

“What often gets lost in the mix is the important resource work and maintenance work and all of those other things that visitors don’t necessarily see that’s really important to the Park Service,” said Garder. “So, park planning, both the science that’s needed for climate change, visitor-use management planning, which is increasingly important in so many parks, all of that work. The maintenance ceases or is compromised, and other wildlife management and data that’s being collected, all of that gets compromised by budget cuts or by government shutdowns. And that is not something that people would support. You know, people don’t just love visiting their parks, they love the existence value. They love that these are places that protect our heritage.”

The fiscal seesawing that the Park Service, and other federal agencies, have had to endure over the years takes a toll on the Park Service’s workforce. Earlier this year Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility noted that the agency’s attrition numbers have been on the rise, reaching 28 percent in 2022, up from 17 percent in 2018. According to the 2020 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey, the Park Service ranked 353rd out of 411 agencies, and last year’s survey dropped the agency to 371st out of 432 agencies when employees were asked if their agency was accomplishing its mission. 

“I think there are definitely signs of stress to the system,” said Murray. “You look at employee morale. Park Service employees are on the front line and providing visitor services. So reduced staffing and increased visitation puts more pressure on them to keep up the pace and keep up the work.”

Traveler postscript: To catch the whole conversation with Mike Murray and John Garder, click here to listen to National Parks Traveler Episode 248.