This National Park Is Brought to You By...
This summer, when backpackers, hikers and families -- with kids in tow -- pony up to get into America's national parks, they could be in for a rude awakening. Due to dramatic budget cuts some parks may be cutting back hours, hiking trails may be impassable, educational programs may no longer exist -- even some bathrooms may be shut down.
Over the past few months, the National Park Service has quietly imposed a hiring freeze, abandoned maintenance projects, cut visitor services and reduced park hours at a number of America's national parks. And, according to Ski magazine, "Forest Service officials appear to be leaning toward a policy change that would allow more visible displays of sponsors, whose logos, names or ads could appear on items they underwrite."
The theory, according to Scott Silver, the executive director of Wild Wilderness, a Bend, Oregon-based environmental advocacy group, is that the NPS can attract park goers -- customers -- with the help of private partners in the tourism industry. He speculates that as early as this summer the NPS could announce a public-private partnership initiative.
The National Park Service used to be one of the most dependable government-run outfits, according to Silver, a longtime environmental watchdog. "From its earliest days, the idea behind the agency was that our national parks would be to America what the Cathedrals and architecture of Europe were to those countries. Most NPS officials cared a great deal for the parks and did a good job managing them."
During the mid-sixties, the tourism industry begun to get its grips into the NPS and by the time George W. Bush took office the process of "Disneyfication" had become well established, Silver said. Now, "politics rule supreme within the Department of Interior and it appears that when the leadership of the NPS is not misdirecting the media and the American public, they are speaking out of both sides of their mouths."
In mid-March, the Associated Press reported that national park superintendents were told to "cut back on services -- possibly even closing smaller, historic sites a couple days a week or shutter visitor centers on federal holidays -- without letting on they are making cuts."
Budget cuts, however, may not be the sole source of the National Park Service's problems. Since 2002, the NPS has spent more than $100 million on travel, including trips to China, Japan, Africa, France and Russia. The Washington Times reported that Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-NC), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the interior, and Rep. Norm Dicks, (D-Wash), the ranking minority member of the subcommittee, told NPS Director Mainella "to cancel all foreign trips and significantly cut domestic travel."
Not everyone, however, is unappreciative of the administration's national parks strategy. The American Recreation Coalition is the country's leading advocate of pro-privatization initiatives for the National Park Service and other public land management agencies. In June, during its Great Outdoors Week celebrations, the ARC's Sheldon Coleman Great Outdoors Award will be presented to Fran Mainella. (Previous recipients have included Alaska's Republican Senator Frank Murkowski and George H. W. Bush.) According to ARC's President, Derrick Crandall, Mainella deserves the award because she "increased public-private partnerships in the park system, increased volunteerism, and began new funding concepts including Partnership in Parks."
One park that has been pursuing the public-private partnership model is now about to feel the hammer of Bush Administration budget cuts. According to the Bangor Daily News, $500,000 in budget cuts at Acadia National Park, located on the coast of Maine and encompassing over 47,000 acres, "will reduce staff and services this summer" and visitors were being warned that the cuts could continue if the situation doesn't improve.
"As hard as the cuts are this year, they still are the easier cuts -- 'easier' is in quotes -- compared to what we will have to do next year," Superintendent Sheridan Steel said. In 2003, Acadia ranked ninth of the 400 most visited national parks and historic sites in the country.
Stephanie Clement, conservation director for Friends of Acadia, one of a number of "Friends of" groups across the country that annually raise about $100 million for the national parks, was adamant that her group never intended that its efforts would stand in for the government: "We never want our funding to replace what is basically congressional responsibility."
According to Silver, Friends of Acadia is "your quintessential National Parks Service 'partner' organization. It actively supports fee-demo, going so far as to sell park passes. They seek out corporate sponsorship for the park; they fundraise and generally embrace a wide range of free-market solutions. In a nutshell, they play by today's rules. In exchange, they have earned a seat at the table, testifying before Congress on a number of occasions."
A recent study by National Parks Conservation Association emphasized the bleak outlook for the country's national parks. "America's national park rangers have become endangered species," NPCA President Thomas Kiernan said when the organization released the Endangered Rangers study. "President Bush -- and some of his predecessors -- made strong commitments to the American people about protecting our national parks. But when push comes to shove, the parks are underfunded year after year by Washington."
To Silver, Friends of Acadia and the National Parks Conservation Association are examples of "weak, compromising, go-along to get-along types of organizations. They have played footsy with the Bush Administration only to have their toes crushed."
"We're never going to save the National Parks by cozying up to this administration," he says. Silver fears that if trends continue in this vein, "people should be prepared to kiss the whole damn American Commons goodbye."
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right-wing groups and movements.