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"Core Ops" Budgeting in the National Park System Goes Silently Into the Night
Editor's note: There's nothing sexy about budgeting in the National Park Service, and most park goers likely could care less about the various decisions that are made when it comes to prioritizing spending in the parks. But learning how your tax dollars are being spent to maintain "America's Best Idea," as the parks have often been called, should be of interest because it directly impacts how you can enjoy those parks. The following story, while undoubtedly of interest primarily to those who work for the NPS, examines whether prudent decisions are being made when it comes to the care-taking of these national treasures.
A succinct, four-paragraph memo from National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis two weeks ago spurred an outpouring of comments from Park Service employees and marked, potentially, a sea change in how park superintendents go about budgeting for their parks. But is it something the general public should take note of?
For many in the Park Service's Intermountain Region, mention of a "core ops" review conjured images of a slash-and-burn approach to budget management. Those most familiar with it tell of orders from the Intermountain office that they not only determine exactly what is "core" to sustaining the mission of their park, but also that they approach that task with the understanding that they'll have to slash at least one-third of their budget.
Positions were cut, some say, not because they were unrelated to the park's mission, but simply to reduce the payroll. In more than a few cases parks were presented with lists of what programs they were to terminate, one long-time Park Service employee, who requested anonymity out of concern of retaliation, told the Traveler.
"We were the innocents being led to slaughter,” that individual said. "There was a pre-determined outcome."
And yet, while core ops was sweeping throughout the region's parks, the staff in the Intermountain office -- which oversees 91 units of the National Park System in eight states -- was rampantly growing, critics of the program maintain.
A veil of silence has fallen over both the work of core ops and its demise. While Director Jarvis's memo said he was bringing a halt to core ops because the approach failed to use "unbiased data and analysis to make informed decisions," Park Service officials in Washington declined to elaborate or point to examples where those failures occurred, saying simply that the memo "spoke for itself."
Perhaps it does, for the memo's very first sentence says that cores ops data was biased, that field managers were not empowered to do their jobs, and that justification for decisions was not always strong.
"As director I want to emphasize use of management tools that empower managers with unbiased data and analysis to make informed decisions, improve the justification and presentation of our budgets, and improvement the management of our financial resources. Based on extensive feedback I have received from field managers I believe that the Core Operations process fails to meet these requirements," he wrote.
Also declining to discuss the memo was Intermountain Regional Director Mike Snyder, the architect of core ops. The regional office also refused to defend the approach by identifying cost savings to the Park Service.
Without that comment and data, it's hard to say whether the core ops approach was flawed from the start, or whether it was a prudent system for budget prioritization that was wielded vindictively, as many of those who commented on the original Traveler story alleged.
Starving the Beast?
Park goers, whose taxes support the national parks, should have that information so they can determine whether the parks they enjoy were being mercilessly slashed of the staff and revenues they needed to be adequately maintained and operated. That question arises, in part, because a reported fan of the core ops approach was then-Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett. Before joining the Interior Department, Ms. Scarlett had been executive director of the Reason Foundation, where she called for "incentive-based programs to encourage private sector stewardship of our land and natural resources."
At the same time, under the Bush administration the "starve the beast" concept came to life, a process in which reduced government funding presumably would result in private businesses taking over more and more aspects of running, in this case, national parks and, along the way, profiting from it. The specter of user fees also gained momentum, with more and more "amenity" fees arising in national parks for everything from ranger-led tours to backcountry permits.
It's against this philosophical backdrop -- that the federal government should wean itself of running national parks and charge individuals more and more to enjoy them -- that core ops came to life.
While Regional Director Snyder declined repeated requests to discuss the merits of core ops, back in April 2006 he developed a series of notes to explain the budgeting approach. Here are some passages from those notes:
If a park determines that it is performing activities that are not core, then it is in a position to direct those resources to activities that are. Too, if the park determines that there are ways to be more efficient or effective in the way it gets work done, then it can utilize any of those savings for core functions. Any savings achieved through realizing efficiencies stays in the park.
On the other hand, a park may determine that it is directing all its activities toward core needs and find that those activities are being done as efficiently and effectively as possible. It may also determine that, despite this, there are still core needs that remain unmet. At that point, it has the basis for a strong, credible request for additional resources to meet those core needs.
Past Efforts to Fund the 'Core Mission' of Parks
All businesses and organizations need to be fiscally fit. Indeed, the Park Service long has realized this. In October 1981, during another fiscally challenging period, then-Park Service Director Russ Dickenson directed his regional directors and superintendents to determine "what basic functions must NPS perform, and how much do they cost..." The wording of his memo sounds quite similar to what Regional Director Snyder put down on paper in 2006. Here's what Mr. Dickenson asked of his managers:
We have been given an opportunity to prepare for the (Interior) Department and for the Office of Management and Budget a comprehensive assessment of the Service-wide resources necessary to carry out successfully the essential functions of each National Park System unit at a minimum acceptable level of performance. The term 'Core Mission for each unit' means precisely that.
Each unit in the System is being asked to develop a Core Mission package. This Core Mission package must be formulated so as to provide management at all levels of the Service the information needed to make informed decisions about possible reallocations and mandatory cuts in resources. A Core Mission package which does not meet this objective will be unacceptable. Similarly, a Core Mission package which is construed by assuming that historic funding patterns will be maintained, or by assuming that existing base-funding levels will be maintained, also will be unacceptable.
I cannot emphasize too strongly to each of you that we must address only essential activities in the Core Mission process. In other words, this process is designed to establish what tasks are essential to the central purpose of the unit and must be carried out, and also to establish the lowest level of resources adequate to carry out each such task at a minimum level of acceptability...
Bill Wade, who was raised in Mesa Verde National Park and had a 34-year National Park Service career that included a stint as superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, has been a harsh critic of core ops "because it emphasized 'efficiency' (saving money) for the most part, ignored 'effectiveness' (doing what is essential to meet the mission of the park or NPS) -- despite its title."
The 1981 directive from Mr. Dickenson, recalled Mr. Wade, took the approach that "carrying out the mission was central to the exercise -- unlike the way core ops evolved."
What Did Core Ops Achieve?
While the approach Mr. Snyder laid out in that April 2006 memo certainly sounds prudent, more than a few of those who work in the Intermountain Region parks take issue with what the regional director said and what actually happened. Some park managers were pressured to identify positions that could be terminated, even after a case was made that they were core to the park, the Traveler has been told.
During the past two weeks the Intermountain office reversed course on a request from the Traveler for copies of annual reports for FY2006 and FY2007 that pointed to the results of core ops budgeting in the region, and also declined to share a briefing document that had been prepared to tout the program's successes. An obtained report on FY2005 core ops work, though, pointed to the following "accomplishments":
* The deputy superintendent job at Rocky Mountain National Park, which sees more than 2.7 million visitors a year, was left vacant. "Core activities assigned to a division chief. Impact: reduced 1 FTE (full-time-equivalent); dollars not spent, $120,000." But the position wasn't vacant long, and in October 2008 Tony Schetzsle, previously the deputy regional director to Mr. Snyder, moved into the Rocky Mountain National Park deputy superintendent post at a salary at least $12,000 higher than the $120,000 cut through the FY05 core ops reduction; (Oddly, the position was the very same job Mr. Schetzsle once held at Rocky Mountain before it was initially left vacant);
* Combined the position of administrative officer and special projects officer at San Antonio Mission National Historic Site and eliminated the "gardener position since it was determined not to be core essential" for a total reduction of two full-time positions and a savings of $150,000 that was reallocated to "cover no-net-loss ranger position and other higher priority activities";
* Rocky Mountain National Park "replaced old snowplows with ones that throw 10 times more snow. Less time and increased employee safety";
* Zion National Park looked at the feasibility of converting the Kolob District to a seasonal facility, a move that would reduce the payroll by three full-time employees and free up roughly $100,000 for use elsewhere;
* Grand Canyon National Park looked at reducing its vehicle fleet by 30 percent, a move expected to save $240,000;
* Rocky Mountain National Park would generate $75,000 by charging for backcountry permits, a move that would free up money in the park's operations budget for use elsewhere;
* Big Bend National Park looked to generate $5,000 by recovering the costs "for river trips from researchers and cooperating agencies";
* Glacier National Park looked at decommissioning its potable water systems at three campgrounds, a move that would require campers to bring their own water but also would eliminate the need for the park "to monitor and test water."
Those are just some of the examples provided by the FY2005 document. Another, more disconcerting, example arose early in 2008 when it became known that the superintendent at Dinosaur National Monument decided to terminate two of the three positions in her paleontology division as a result of core ops, a move that many ridiculed for being made in a unit of the National Park System that existed because of its rich paleontological resources.
As to whether the death of core ops represents a sea change in how the Park Service develops its budgets and identifies what truly is core to running its parks remains to be seen. Some regional offices are continuing to use the core ops model, though reportedly tweaked to remove the heavy handed approach that one-third of a park's budget is unnecessary, while some parks in the Intermountain Region reportedly are continuing the original core ops approach despite Director Jarvis's memo.
As these budget decisions directly affect the public's enjoyment of the national parks, it's a matter park goers should follow.
Core ops postscript: On March 30, 2009, President Obama approved H.R. 146, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, as Public Law 111-11. Title VI, Subtitle D of the act directs the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to implement a comprehensive paleontological resource management program on federal lands. The requirements in Subtitle D will provide increased protection, enhanced management tools, and greater scientific and public understanding of NPS fossil resources.
The Paleontological Resources Preservation Act (PRPA) attached to the 2009 Omnibus Bill requires the agencies to 1) promulgate regulations as soon as practical; 2) develop plans for fossil inventories, monitoring, and scientific and educational use; 3) manage and protect paleontological resources on Federal land using scientific principles and expertise; 4) establish a program to increase public awareness about the significance of paleontological resources; 5) allow casual collection of common invertebrate and plant fossils on BLM, Forest Service and Bureau of Reclamation lands where consistent with the laws governing those lands; 6) manage fossil collection via specific permitting requirements; 7) curate collected fossils in accordance with the Act’s requirements; 8) implement the Act’s criminal and civil enforcement, penalty, reward and forfeiture provisions; and 9) protect information about the nature and specific location of fossils where warranted. The Act authorizes appropriations necessary to carry out these requirements.
A coordinated federal approach is planned for implementing many of the Act’s provisions, including the development of regulations. The NPS lead office in the implementation of the Act will be the Geologic Resources Division (GRD). GRD will work closely with parks and regions throughout this process. Based on available data, 213 units are known to contain fossil resources either in-situ, in museum collections, and/or in a cultural context [see list below]. This number is likely to increase as future inventories are completed. NPS museum collections contain more than 445,000 cataloged paleontological specimens.