Turning the National Parks Over to Volunteers
So, do you ever wonder whether National Park Service Director Fran Mainella spends her waking hours dreaming about a volunteer National Park Service?
I mean, really, what better service could she do the Bush administration than help it afford those tax cuts for the rich and underwrite the Iraq quagmire than by coming up with a solution to those pesky bills her agency keeps running up?
And, truthfully, the Park Service's largest tab is for salaries and benefits. The Government Accountability Office pointed out back in March, when it released a report on "Major Operations Funding Trends and How Selected Park Units Responded to Those Trends for Fiscal Years 2001 through 2005," that "about 80 percent or more of the park units' daily operations funds pay for salaries and benefits for staff..." (You can look it up. It's on page 2.)
Eighty percent! Phew. For an agency with an annual budget of about $2.2 billion, Fran must think that's an awful big chunk of change just for employees.
I mean, why else would she so greatly support the president's fiscal 2007 budget proposal for her agency, the proposal that calls for a $100 million cut in Park Service funding from current levels. And why else would she press her park superintendents to identify cost savings of roughly 20 percent in their respective budgets?
And all the while Fran says things are just dandy in the park system, that the president's proposal "supports the goals of protecting park resources, continuing improvements in asset management, and achieving efficiencies in the management of park programs within the context of the administration's goal of cutting the federal budget deficit in half by 2009." She made that pronouncement back in early April during an appearance before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.
I know, I know, I've harped about this topic before. But don't you think it's a vital message that needs to get out, one that shows the attitude that explains why our national park system is languishing? Ever since that GAO report came out newspapers across the country have been writing about the plight of our national park system, how funding cuts are forcing parks to shutter restrooms, reduce interpretive programs, and put off much-needed maintenance work.
The latest story comes from the Los Angeles Times' Julie Cart, who writes about the dwindling number of rangers who are leading interpretive programs. She points out that at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area two-thirds of the nature hikes are actually led by volunteers. At Yosemite National Park just one in five interpretive programs are led by rangers. The others are led by concessionaire employees. (Can you say "privatization"?)
Over at Lava Beds National Monument, Superintendent Craig Dorman told Cart that, "The old saying in the Park Service is that, 'We can do more with less.' I don't think that's true anymore. We're now in a position of doing less with less."
Such outspokenness typically was unheard of. But then Death Valley National Park Superintendent J.T. Reynolds began to bridle at some of the Bush administration's thoughts on how national parks should be run. Last summer, when a draft rewrite of the NPS's Management Polices was leaked, Reynolds was the lone high-profile park superintendent to publicly criticize the rewrite.
Now, thankfully, more and more superintendents are discovering their voices.
Which brings me back to Fran and the volunteer Park Service. I've got nothing against volunteers. Heck, I could see myself volunteering in some capacity. But I surely don't have the knowledge or background to apply to an interpretive program that a schooled and trained NPS professional has. And as more and more NPS professionals are replaced by volunteers, these programs more than likely will suffer, and we'll suffer for that.
If cutting park budgets through the fat and into the muscle and bone is Director Mainella's answer for the president's poor mismanagement, perhaps she wouldn't mind stepping aside for a volunteer. And perhaps some of the 535 folks who make up Congress wouldn't mind taking a year or two without salary to contribute towards, as Fran puts it, "the administration's goal of cutting the federal deficit in half by 2009."