Report Shows Visiting National Parks Could be Hazardous to Your Health

Negotiating the Wawona Tunnel in Yosemite National Park could be hazardous to your health, according to the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General. Photo by km6xo via flickr.

Visiting national parks could be hazardous to your health. That's the conclusion that can be drawn from a snapshot of health and safety conditions across the National Park System.

The assessment, made by the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General, casts an alarming and greatly disturbing portrait of safety not just throughout the national parks, but across many, if not all, of the agencies that fall under Interior.

Reading the report, which you can find by following the "recently released reports" link at this site, it's almost a wonder that there hasn't been a serious accident somewhere within Interior's empire. Along with the National Park Service, Interior oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Prepared at Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's request, the report singled out the Wawona Tunnel in Yosemite National Park as a serious threat to human safety because the tunnel has gone two decades without serious attention to maintenance and safety.


The National Park Service has allowed crucial maintenance to lapse for years at many of its parks. For at least 20 years, NPS has not performed critical maintenance on its aging Wawona Tunnel located in Yosemite National Park. We concluded that the hazardous conditions in the tunnel endanger lives.

Indeed, one Park Service official told the Inspector General's staff that, "I am alarmed at the potential for a catastrophic event of massive and deadly proportions in the Wawona Tunnel."

While work is under way to correct the tunnel's problems -- repairing exhaust fans so all three can operate properly, addressing the lack of fire escape exits and carbon monoxide sensors, developing an emergency response plan -- the Inspector General's staff visited just 10 of the park system's 391 units, leaving open to question whether other serious health and safety problems are lurking.

Judging from written comments received by the inspection staff, Interior and its agencies have seemed to lack a safety culture.

Some of these comments revealed many health and safety conditions that are serious and have gone uncorrected. Comments also revealed instances in which safety is not a priority and where employees have been retaliated against for reporting health and safety issues.

The Department and its bureaus need to systematically identify and correct health and safety deficiencies by making the protection of employees and the public an integral part of their asset management process. They must take immediate steps to prevent existing hazardous from escalating into deadly ones.

In their sampling of 10 parks, the Inspector General's staff found:

* The headquarters administration office at Grand Teton National Park does not meet earthquake seismic safety codes. Park employees who work in the Moose Maintenance Facility are exposed to poor indoor air quality "caused by vehicle exhaust coming from a garage where snow plows, dump trucks, and ambulances were kept. The facility was also over-crowded."

* At Dinosaur National Monument, deterioration of the Visit Center, which has been closed, continues to "put the irreplaceable fossils at risk. The day-to-day maintenance that is essential to keep the building standing has not been performed. As a result, the fossils were being degraded by exposure to weather and vermin droppings."

* "Providing safe drinking water and properly disposing of wastewater at Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks present a growing risk to the health of employees and the public. Combined, these parks operate 47 drinking water and 42 wastewater systems. An official at Yosemite stated that the park struggles to keep its aging systems running and repairs are usually not made until the facilities break or fail. (my emphasis) In addition, two of Yosemite's water systems did not comply with federal health regulations and many of Yellowstone's systems were in various states of deterioration.

* "NPS pilots at Denali and Lake Clark national parks in Alaska work in conditions that have been reported as unsafe for nearly 10 years by Departmental aviation experts. The airplanes are primarily used for search and rescue, wildlife surveys, scientific research, and law enforcement patrol."

The report, issued late in March, prompted an immediate response from Secretary Kempthorne to address the deficiencies.

"He has made a personal commitment to the employees to improve health and safety agencywide," a spokeswoman for the secretary told the Washington Post. "When this report came out, the secretary deputized a deputy secretary to immediately create a task force to conduct an expedited review of its findings and recommendations."

Many of the problems can be traced to that incredible landscape that Interior oversees, coupled with a lack of resources, both financial and staff. For example, between Fiscal 2000 and Fiscal 2006 the backlog in Interior's maintenance programs ballooned "at least $2 billion," to somewhere between $9.6 billion and $17.3 billion, the report states.

"The Department faces the difficult challenge of maintaining an infrastructure valued at over $65 billion and spread over 500 million acres," the report notes. "The ability to adequately maintain this infrastructure is hampered by limited resources and the aging of the facilities. This infrastructure includes approximately 40,000 buildings; 4,200 bridges and tunnels; 126,000 miles of highways and roads, and; 2,500 dams as well as nearly every type of asset found in a local community."

And yet, Interior has just 175 full-time "safety professionals" to oversee its health and safety program.

Some other highlights of the report:

* The accident rate among Interior employees is one of the highest in the federal government. "During FY2006 4,409 workers' compensation claims were filed, representing a claim rate of 6.27 out of every 100 employees, exceeding the federal average by 41 percent. That year, the Department paid $58 million in claims and lost 15,000 days of employee work, which equates to 58 work years."

* Interior does not have "an organizational structure that facilitates an effective health and safety program."

* Interior does not have "effective coordination between the health and safety and asset management programs."

* Interior does not have "adequate numbers of trained safety staff."

* Interior does not have "an effective facility safety inspection program."

In response to the Inspector General's report, Secretary Kempthorne, among other things, appointed James Cason to oversee safety for Interior; agreed to create a position of Chief of Health and Safety; agreed to develop a department-wide action plan to eliminate significant health-and-safety deficiencies, and; agreed to create a funding strategy to address health and safety issues in a timely manner.

Comments

This is truly sad. I hope someone is going to come up with a sincere, effective plan to address these issues. I don't think another overpaid bureaucrat is the answer.

The real problem in a nutshell can be gleaned from a key quote in Kurt's article which strikes at the very heart of the problem: "When this report came out, the secretary deputized a deputy secretary to immediately create a task force to conduct an expedited review of its findings and recommendations."

If simply creating yet more bureaucracy is the only response that the calcified and top-heavy NPS management team can come up with then it is not a hopeful sign that dramatic change is on the horizon for the proper maintenance of the parks or for the safety of staff and visitors.

Though this is what we've come to expect it is nonetheless a sad statement on the "business as usual" response from the befuddled stewards of "America's special places".

I'm going to be spending the next 4 years travelling the US's National Park system as well as several State Parks (not to be named for obvious reasons). We will be documenting ALL issues that we find in ALL parks and will make them publically, and hopefully nationally, known.

Pray for us. Please. I'm not a religious person, but there are a lot of people who would go to great lengths to keep this from happening - especially in the form of a mini series, an investigative documentary, a movie, several books and a lecture tour - to start with.

The Druid

Beamis,

I thought you'd decided not to participate in Traveler any more... it's sad that no matter what the problem in the national parks, you always find a way to blame the "top-heavy" "befuddled" managers of the NPS. I'm not suggesting managers are blameless, but did you note that a significant finding of the report was that:

"The Department faces the difficult challenge of maintaining an infrastructure valued at over $65 billion and spread over 500 million acres. The ability to adequately maintain this infrastructure is hampered by limited resources and the aging of the facilities."

What's your simple answer?

JLongstreet

J Longstreet,

Both Beamis and I were asked to stop posting on the site. For me the asking was a bit stronger; my user account was deleted for me. As I write these words, I have a feeling they may just be deleted, even though there is no profanity or personal attacks contained therein.

I think people have mistaken our disdain for bureaucracy--accompanied by a passion for preserving nature--as personal attack. My vitriol is aimed not at individuals, but at the bureaucratic, self-perpetuating system that threatens the preservation of national parks.

"The Department faces the difficult challenge of maintaining an infrastructure valued at over $65 billion and spread over 500 million acres. The ability to adequately maintain this infrastructure is hampered by limited resources and the aging of the facilities."

What's your simple answer?

My simple answer is that the DOI infrastructure is too large to maintain, and like Rome's empire, our federal empire faces collapse under its own weight. We should be asking ourselves why we've developed nature to the point that it--which should be self-perpetuating--can't do without us. National parks were supposed to be left unimpaired; $65 billion in infrastructure seems a huge, and hugely expensive, impairment. Printing more money to feed the every-hungry bureaucracy seems like an effective quick fix, but it will only harm national parks in the long term.

And long-term sustainability is what we should be thinking about.

Mr. Longstreet my suggestion is the same as it has always been: DECENTRALIZE! Start with a commission to determine which parks are essentially political pork (the Steamtowns and such) and find out if there are any municipalities, private non-profit trusts or subject focused preservation societies that would be interested in taking over those sites identified for transition out of the NPS. Believe me there are many such areas that are bleeding the agency dry and depriving more worthy parks of much needed care.

This process, once begun, would gradually free up money for more important and substantial parks (places like Yosemite and Yellowstone) that could start to address some of the less glamorous tasks of park management such as physical infrastructure and routine maintenance.

Ultimately I, and many others, would like to see the U.S. government get out of the park business entirely and gradually turn these areas over to non-profit and smaller more regionally focused governmental entities. The politics of Washington is not at all conducive to the orderly and efficient function of much, including the administering of wild and historic properties.

Do you really think that the average American would actually care if the Grand Canyon had Arizona state park rangers leading hikes and collecting entrance fees instead of the green and gray? Would vast numbers of people stop visiting just because the current Secretary of the Interior's picture no longer adorned the walls of the park HQ? I submit that the answer is an emphatic no.

Good luck on your journey Druid. Maybe I'll run into you this summer somewhere between Moab and Kings Canyon.

Frank and Beamis,

First of all, welcome back.

Now, in light of Frank's contention that the two of you were asked to stop commenting at the Traveler, let me set the record straight by pulling from the email I sent you both last December:


I don't think there's any question that you ... have commented more on the Traveler than anyone else. At times your comments have provided valuable insight into the machinations of the NPS and contributions to the overall dialog. However, there are times when your comments have been overly negative, to the point that not only do they drown out others but, as has been noted twice publicly in the past 24 hours and a number of times privately, have others deciding not to comment, and that's a problem.

In extreme cases, folks simply are not returning to the Traveler.

As you know, one of our goals at the Traveler is to spur discussion and debate of the National Park Service and the national park system with hopes of exploring solutions to ongoing problems as well as spawn more advocates for the system. And, judging from the overall tenor of your comments, you both share this mission in some form.

And that's where an irony strikes. While you want to change the Park Service, your at-times-overly-strident comments are actually muffling debate on the site and, in effect, preventing dialog that just might have some small impact from continuing and evolving. As ardent supporters of the park SYSTEM, I'm sure this is not your intent.

The Traveler's mission is not to tear down the Park Service, and, unfortunately, that's the stance you both seem to have chosen. We do not disagree that work needs to be done within the agency, but we do believe change can come from within. Are we overly optimistic? Perhaps. But if so, then perhaps you're overly pessimistic.

...

If there is to be change from within, the Park Service needs to attract employees and managers who embrace the agency's mission and want to make a change in the culture. Indeed, surveys -- both those from within the NPS and external sources -- indicate that a strong majority (80-85 percent, I believe) of the agency's roughly 20,000 employees already support that mission. But turnover is growing as more and more employees approach retirement. Attracting new employees dedicated to the mission and a healthy culture can be difficult when they constantly read that the Park Service is a dead-end agency.

We don't want you to stop commenting.
(my emphasis) But we think you've more than made your feelings known about what you think of the Park Service and its employees. The Traveler is not the forum for this continued condemnation.

You both have spoken highly of the Traveler in the past and the role it serves, and we certainly appreciate your support. But if we're to have any chance of changing the NPS culture and improving the park system, we need to build the audience and the dialog, not scare it away. Along that line, your input will do little good if the audience does not grow or if folks decide not to comment because they are weary of your criticisms.

That said, yes, Frank, your IP address was banned because you ignored the above-cited email and were trying to make a mockery out of the Traveler. While you certainly have a First Amendment right to vent your spleen, that right does not allow you to post whatever you wish within the cyber walls of the Traveler.

Again, as I noted in December, the Traveler is not the forum for continued condemnation of the National Park Service. If that's your goal, I wish you well in a forum of your own.

Kurt----I understood and respected your position. My hiatus had more to do with a lack of interest in continuing to comment since, as you noted, I had made my point about the bureaucratic mismanagement of the parks quite clear.

Once the discussion of what I feel is the most compelling problem facing the parks, the structure and management of the NPS, was off the table I knew that this forum was not the place to advance my agenda of reform. I have commented most recently due to the fact that other readers of your site have forwarded links to some of your articles which they thought I might wish to comment on. So I have.

I do not plan to become a regular or vociferous contributor once again but am grateful to have added my two cents to a couple of recent articles on subjects near and dear to my heart.

On another note I found it interesting that Bob Janiskee, a loyal and dedicated defender of the agency, had this to say about NPS managers in his piece on Nevada Barr's character Anna Pigeon: "Anna will cope with a maddeningly unresponsive bureaucracy. Any supervisors and up-the-line functionaries that Anna encounters in #15 will be part of the problem, not part of the solution. Anna knows that the Park Service is fundamentally a bureaucracy like any other, and her experiences with higher-ups have convinced her that these men and women are consummate CYA specialists. What’s a ranger to do when the people she answers to are spineless and clueless? Why, fend for herself, of course!"

I suppose that's as strong a condemnation of the status quo in the NPS as any that either Frank or I ever uttered in any of our previous posts, but coming from Bob it's merely an astute observation. I applaud him for his insight as it is right on the money.

I remember times over three decades ago when the fans in the Wawona tunnel would go pffffttt, CO would build up, and the sensors would fail. Maintenance backlogs in the billions Interior wide, and a "Centennial Initiative" to privatize National Parks through "partnerships", to build more stuff we can't get budgets to maintain in the long term, do NOT seem to be lights in the tunnel, Wawona or otherwise.

I watched "safety" programs change in government, and one aspect in Interior is that people work outdoors and where things go bump in the night. The other is that ncreasing REPORTING procedures for ANY incident also accumulate "statistics" to make things appear more dangerous than the real world impacts show with regard to personal injuries.

Yes, there is a HUGE job to be done, no question about it. But to put incompetents in charge of "safety" and gesticulate before the public waving flags and screaming, instead of actually DOING anything constructive, is just one more step on the "path to terror" ANY public relations effort this administration follows.

My personal opinion is to De-Centralize... more would be done and our national treasures would be in better hands. I believe that you are on the right track and hang in there... There is more support than is realized. Thank you for bringing the report to life!

As an Interior employee for some decades (I am not speaking as an official however) I have seen firsthand this issue and the root cause as always is lack of money and direction from administrators, Congress and the White House! It appears politicians love spending money on the new (Steamtown) but fail to maintain the old (Wawona tunnel). No glory in maintenance compared to the nice shiny visitor centers we're building at some parks and refuges. Until America realizes that it takes money to maintain our infrastructure you can expect to see more deterioration and closing of facilities.

Regarding Beamis' idea to move parks from the US government to non-profit control is laughable. There would be less money available for maintenance if that happened. Interior is moving forward in all agencies to improve safety and facility maintenance. Since we the people are the government we need to keep talking this up to our representatives and voting for people who will spend money to rebuild America first instead of wasting money on massive military programs and overseas adventures. Read the news for the evidence of massive war profiteering and waste in the Defense Dept. It takes our collective attention and agitation before we'll see an improvement.

Since there is at present an existing backlog of "between $9.6 billion and $17.3 billion" I wonder whose position is the more laughable Mr. Devil?

Every poll that is taken these days shows that "we the people" are overwhelmingly against "massive military programs and overseas adventures". Yet does this make any kind of a tangible difference? It is clear to the entire world that it does not. Evidence of massive war profiteering is there for all to see and yet no one in Washington has been moved to change a single thing. Again whose position is the more laughable?

It is high time to transition our national treasures out the hands of their current masters in DC before they go completely bankrupt, a time that is drawing ever nearer, and into the hands of locally based institutions that will nurture them and sustain them beyond their role as political footballs on the gridiron of Washington politics.

The time for "collective attention and agitation" concerning the imperial mandarins in DC is now long past. The whole world is increasingly bypassing and ignoring their hollow edicts and proclamations, making them more and more irrelevant to a forward thinking planet. Continuing to put our trust in them to do what is right for the national parks would be nothing short of foolish. It is clearly time for a new direction in administering these precious preserves, one that does not involve politicians housed along the banks of the Potomac.

I'm done on this subject------over and out.

Beamis and Frank:

What fatigues me -- and a number of other NPT readers I've spoken with -- is that you repeatedly (and I suspect deliberately) fail to make the necessary distinction between the politically-appointed masters of the NPS and the public servants who work in the trenches despite those masters to achieve the mission of the agency. I for one, admire most of those colleagues and what they are attempting to accomplish as part of, yes, a United States Government bureaucracy. When you have reserved your suggestions for political reform and restructuring to the posts that are indeed on that subject, you'll see no argument from me. May I suggest (as Frank has indeed done in the past on occasion) that you stay germane to the topic Kurt leads with: in this case, there are severe safety issues in the national parks and other DOI facilities. While we await the governmental reorganization and wholesale replacement of most of the incumbent managers of the national park system that you so fervently wish for, I'll ask again, more specifically: what's your realistic solution?

J Longstreet

"What fatigues me -- and a number of other NPT readers I've spoken with -- is that you repeatedly (and I suspect deliberately) fail to make the necessary distinction between the politically-appointed masters of the NPS and the public servants who work in the trenches despite those masters to achieve the mission of the agency."

Unfortunately it is not easy to have much confidence in either group. As hard as it may be for you to believe there are many of us out here in the hinterland who don't see much qualitative difference in lifetime tenured agency bureaucrats (whom I am quite familiar with) who have a big stake in maintaining the status quo or in vote grabbing pork-minded politicians swilling freely from the feeding trough. You'll find this to be a common viewpoint among the vast majority of the American populace.

I know that there are many dedicated front line employees toiling honestly as park rangers who I am certain would be just as skilled and proficient in their work if they were to someday come under a different form of management. Many of them would actually advance and thrive once the shackles of petty politics and civil service work rules were removed and the careerist self-perpetuators shown the door. I know this to be true because I interact and live among NPS employees, most of whom would welcome a radical change in the way the business of park management is conducted. Due to a culture of fear and reprisal their voices remain mostly silent when it comes to speaking up about what is wrong with the way they are forced to "achieve the mission".

Mr. Longstreet, you have yet to confront or engage me on any of my ideas, suggestions or replies but steadfastly attack me as being unrealistic or full of antagonism towards your agency. That's certainly your right but I can assure you that I am not in the minority when it comes to seeking other ways to accomplish societal goals without the heavy hand of the U.S. federal government.

"We the People" ceased to be the government since the onset of the 2-party system, both losers know matter how you define the term. You have no true options any longer when it comes to your representation in Washington. Recently some good men have made the trip, seen the system, refused to play and left after one term. Rebuilding America first sounds so noble, but since Dem-donkeys and Rep-tuskers can't sustain the profiteering domestically without intense scrutiny from the media, foreign interests will be the primary source of political payback for the forseeable future. Which means funds being peed away to rebuilding foreign countries, supporting the overthrow of foreign governments and maintaining the ridiculous system of foreign aid in our "buy your allies" campaign. With funding for domestic programs of all nature continually being pared for the "war effort", whatever that may be, your faith remains with DC? Bureaucratic meddling knows no bounds, and if by chance there might be monies to divert to campaign supporters, the money will be cyphoned off prior to any real progress in "cosmetic" improvements to our homeland. Face it kids, Washington pols don't give a damn about what "the people" think, except for that brief period in an election year, where they will say literally ANYTHING to place a smile on your face, even though by now you must be absolutely stupid in you buy into their crap. Most are too concerned with lining their personal retirement funds and those of their financial supporters, and the only way to accomplish that is to play kiss-ass with the few tenured on Capital Hill. Since these programs don't fall under any particular "pork" jurisdiction with any real impact on local economies, little will be contemplated and even less with be enacted to bring the public lands up-to-date. There simply isn't enough money in it for DC to care about. Unless, of course, you happen to be a significant source of campaign funding...........

Removing the responsibility of maintenance and upkeep from Washington is not only practical, it's mandatory. They've done nothing but ignore the issue for decades, and the backlog continues to grow exponentially due to that negligence, and is not localized by region or any other factor. No place across the system are monies being allocated save those few projects that can be held up a "shining examples of your tax dollars at work" that play like press conferences in front of constituents and a media circus. A special taxing body needs to be enacted, independent of federal bullying and able to stand on its own as a true representation of "we the people". A system based on ALL citizens and taxpayers of the country equally, since we are indeed referring to what are supposed to be public lands. Possibly tied into your 1040. Possibly based on sales or utility taxes, or a deduction directly from your payroll based on any number of factors, such as family size. The possibilites are numerous as to the most efficient method of collecting the revenue. Whether you choose to utilize these lands or not, since you are part of the system you're responsible for the maintenance and upgrade, which is absolutely no different than the system as currently devised. The major differrence is that being removed from federal hands, the monies are more-than-likely to end up where they belong, as opposed to some Swiss bank accounts belonging to your ever-lovin' lobbyist groups. Sounds more than fair to me.

I'm a bit dismayed by the comment that blows off "Steamtown" as political pork. Railroading is a very large part of our Nation's historical and cultural heritage - to me it seems only appropriate that there should be a National Park Service Unit devoted to interpreting this historical and cultural legacy. On my visit to Steamtown, I was fascinated to see a railroad turn table in operation, and was entranced by the exhibits there that let me touch the stories of Americans from 100 years ago whose lives were shaped by the railroad.

Sabattis, the people who diss Steamtown -- and that is a LOT of park advocates -- have no quarrel with the commemoration of railroading history in the National Park System. The issue centers on the tainted political process that resulted in the selection of the Steamtown site. Steamtown would never have made the cut (there being so many more appropriate sites) were it not for a powerful Congressman who rammed it down the Park Service's throat. Now, in much the same manner that "Pearl Harbor" symbolizes sneak attack, Steamtown stands for "park barrel politics" -- the political process through which elected officials, with re-election in mind, subvert the objective site selection process and instead use back room vote-trading and raw political power to deliver national parks (read "tourism dollars and jobs") to their constituents back home.

I'd be curious to hear more about the establishment of Steamtown - and what other, more-worthy sites were passed up. Maybe it would be a good NPT article (if it hasn't been one already.)

But on the surface, though, how different is the establishment of Steamtown from the establishment of the John D. Rockefeller Parkway? One was established through Congress - another was established through the donation of a philanthropist.

You are not the majority, you just think you’re important and therefore think you must be the majority. If you were the majority the park service wouldn’t be around anymore!

State parks across the board do not have the money to be properly administered. When state budgets come out, it’s just like in Washington D.C., the parks suffer. Your solution is a non-solution; all it would cause is the closure and/or further degradation to the special places in America. And please, if you would leave places like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite in the hands of non-profits, you have another thing coming if you think they are going to be able to get enough cash flow to run these places without federal grants…. If the government is going to be funding them anyway, what’s the difference? The answer is difficult and your shoot from the hip quick fixes are not going to help anyone or any public lands.

Fight the disneylandification of your parks!!!!