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Not a walk in the park

By Katharine Herrup

Although President Obama recently fulfilled his promise to better fund America’s national parks with a bill he signed Oct. 30 that will add $218 million to the parks budget next year, the small increases his administration is providing are unlikely to be enough to make up for years of neglect.

Obama said during his campaign he “will repair the damage done to our national parks by inadequate funding,” but so far, he has done only slightly better than George W. Bush when it comes to boosting the parks’ budget. Since 2007, the annual budget has increased by more than $100 million a year. Next year’s increase of $218 million is an improvement, but it’s hardly transformative.

“It’s a very little increase that Obama has managed to get through the Congress,” says Bruce Hamilton, deputy executive director of the Sierra Club. “It may be a step in the right direction, but it’s not nearly enough. Much more needs to be done by Congress and the administration to find much larger public funding investment in future years. They will need to keep adding more.”

Last year, under Bush, the parks budget was about $2.5 billion. This year, it is a bit over $2.7 billion. The parks have a maintenance backlog of $9.2 billion and an operating deficit of about $580 million. Their annual budget is less than 0.1 percent of the federal budget and is less than what America spends in a week in Iraq.

“When you look at the federal numbers, and a billion dollars is lost here and there, and the National Park Service budget is so tiny, you wouldn’t think it would be so hard to make a larger investment,” says Phil Voorhees, a fellow at the National Parks Conservation Association.

The number of park law-enforcement officials has been drastically slashed in an effort to deal with funding shortfalls. The 469-mile-long Blue Ridge Parkway National Park in North Carolina and Virginia, for instance, has had to cut back 40 percent of its staff. It now has only about 35 law-enforcement rangers to deal with 16 million annual visitors to its 300 miles of trails, and the reduced number of rangers has a direct effect on park visitors. Phil Francis, superintendant of the park, says that one of his rangers recently had to decide whether to respond first to a potentially deadly car crash or to a person who was having a heart attack: “Imagine if you have to wait for someone to drive 40 or 50 miles to respond to a medical emergency.”

In 2008, there were a record total of 136,186 reported criminal offenses in national parks, including homicide, rape, assault, kidnapping, and robbery. “At one point, the park ranger job was the most dangerous law-enforcement job,” says Denis Galvin, a retired deputy director of the National Park Service. “One reason being is that you’re in such remote, hard-to-reach places.”

Park infrastructure is suffering as well—visitor centers, many of which were created under President Eisenhower, are falling apart. The Dinosaur National Park’s visitor center in Utah, which won an award for its design in the 1960s, has been closed for more than three years, since July 2006. It was condemned for structural safety hazards because it has gone without any upkeep for close to 50 years.

“The construction budget right now is a joke,” Galvin says. “Nine hundred million dollars to cover over 20,000 buildings, some of which are the most historic, and over 6,000 miles of road? The Washington Mall itself needs $200 million for construction maintenance. Independence National Park, where the Liberty Bell is in Philadelphia, needs $10 million just to fix Independence Hall’s tower.”

Obama has begun to send help by granting $900 million in stimulus money to fund shovel-ready construction projects, of which $8 million to $10 million is supposed to go to climate-change initiatives in national parks in 2010. But that funding is dwarfed by infrastructure needs dating back decades.

“There’s a real mismatch between the funding that gets provided for the parks and the parks being able to take the lead in a broader mission, as an environmental spinal cord spreading throughout the country,” says Linda Bilmes, public-finance professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. “The parks really need a source of funding to get out of the current budget prison they are in.”

Another possible source of revenue could come in the form of fees; entrance fees produce about $190 million a year in income, and unlike the appropriated budget, that money doesn’t have to be spent in the same year. President Obama could pressure Congress to allow all parks to increase their entrance fees as they see fit. “I can’t take my family to the movies for $25, but I can take them to Yellowstone for seven days for that,” says Holly Fretwell, a fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center and an adjunct professor of economics at Montana State University. “That’s not sustainable funding.”

One possible solution to the vagaries of national-park funding would be for Congress to create an endowment that would provide regular funds for the parks to rely upon, so that they wouldn’t be subject to the whims of particular administrations. The Second Century Commission, co-chaired by former Republican senator Howard Baker Jr. of Tennessee and former Democratic senator Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, recommends such a long-term investment vehicle to help preserve the parks, though an endowment would need to be substantial (in the billions) to produce steady income at the levels needed and may therefore be a tough sell politicially, as even the idea’s supporters acknowledge. Congress is taking some small steps in the right direction—Sens. Max Baucus and Jeff Bingaman have just proposed a bill that would appropriate $450 million dollars annually for four federal land-managing agencies, including national parks. But, unlike an endowment, such half measures aren’t really equal to the challenges facing the parks.

“We have this natural resource, but we’re not leveraging it,” says the Kennedy School’s Bilmes, who is also a commissioner on the Second Century Commission. A 2006 report contracted by the National Parks Conservation Association and written by independent economists Jared Hardner and Bruce McKenney found that the National Park Service generates approximately four times the value ($10.1 billion) of its cost to taxpayers ($2.6 billion) in the form of the economic boost that visitor spending provides to nearby areas.

With the parks’ 100-year anniversary approaching in 2016, the National Park Service has created a centennial challenge of bringing in an additional $3 billion over the next 10 years through increased funding from Congress and philanthropic support. Whether or not it succeeds could determine whether one of the country’s most valuable natural resources will survive for another 100 years.

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