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Wednesday, 26 April 2006 00:00

Rotten to the core

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According to recent stories by Knight Ridder news services, the Bush Administration thinks our national parks are too fat. A mandate called the “core operation analysis” has been issued directing park officials across the country to cut between 20 and 30 percent of their operating budget while maintaining the parks’ core mission of resource protection and visitor enjoyment. Many parks have already begun to implement cuts and all parks are supposed to be in compliance by 2011.

While the National Park Service officially says that meeting the core operation analysis will not impact visitor enjoyment or resource protection, cuts that have been implemented to date do not bear that out. According to a Government Accountability Office report, parks had already initiated service cuts before the core operation analysis began. As early as 2004 the Great Smoky Mountains National Park cut interpretive programs by 25 percent and replaced seven seasonal technicians with student volunteers. A March 2004 report by the National Parks Conservation Association noted that the number of permanent park rangers had dropped by more than 16 percent since 1980 and the number of seasonal employees had fallen by more than 23 percent.

Shenandoah has closed its southern visitor contact station; Bryce Canyon has reduced backcountry patrols; Acadia closed all seven restrooms along roads and trailheads in its winter-use area; Grand Canyon reduced its interpretive programs from 35 in 2001 to 23 in 2005; and at Glacier National Park this summer, three campgrounds will no longer have potable water or trash service.

George W. Bush as a presidential candidate pledged to increase our national parks budgets in 2000 and 2004. And park superintendents were urged to talk about these types of cuts as “service level adjustments.”

Now President Bush is proposing to cut more than $100 million from next year’s national parks’ budgets and according to internal documents released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility the administration is urging superintendents to be “honest and forthright” with the public regarding smaller budgets, reduced visitor services and increased fees. According to the documents, shortfalls for essential operations would be made up for with fee hikes, cost shifting and increased reliance on volunteers.

This cost shifting and reliance on volunteers will certainly impact groups like Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.

In a thoughtful editorial in the April 19 Asheville Citizens-Times, Houch Medford, executive director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, discusses some of these impacts and talks about park funding in general. I think the first paragraph of Medford’s piece is quite telling: “Park philanthropies have traditionally provided the National Park Service with funds that provide a margin of excellence, but continued federal under funding could force them to provide a margin of survival. This is unfair to the donor who has made a good faith contribution with the expectation that their gift will support the ‘excellence’ factor. This arrangement could even potentially establish a form of double taxation: a donor pays for parks once via the IRS, and the second time via a charitable gift to compensate, unwittingly, for a park operations offset.”

Groups like the Friends and the Parkway Foundation and others should be the icing on the cake. The heavy lifting should be up to Congress. Recent attempts to sell off public lands, efforts towards privatization of services and increased vendors in our national parks, and now the core operation analysis all portray an administration that views our national forests and national parks as a burden on the ‘bottom line’ rather than treasures to be preserved, protected and enhanced for future generations.

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