Park Budget is Depressing

Yellowstone Ranger : Brian Suderman, NPS PhotoOne of the things I love about our National Parks is that they appeal to many different people. The adrenaline junkie can climb upside down off a cliff 1000 feet in the air, the photographer can find solitude near a river, the family can enjoy time together in the campground next to a fire, and the scientist can study birds in their natural habitat. All of these things can be done without any direct help from a Park Ranger. And yet, even though you may never see a ranger on your vacation to a park, your enjoyment of the resource is built on the back of these hard working folks. Before you can climb El Capitan, you need to drive in on roads, freshen up in restrooms, fill up on water, toss your garbage in a can, and hike in on access trails. We take these things for granted on our trip, but lately there have been hints that even these core services are getting the budget squeeze. Here are some examples sampled from a recent Knight Ridder news clipping:

I just find this depressing. I write this blog because the parks are something I enjoy. I love when I can visit these places and "get away from it all". But, it seems that the nation's fiscal reality has found the place I like to go to escape. Earlier this week, I was sent a mass-email from my Senator, Patty Murray of Washington. She knows that times are tough for park budgets, and she tells me:
For the past several years, the National Park Service (NPS) has faced a number of strains, including increased visitation rates, maintenance backlogs, and massive budget deficits. To address these issues, I believe Congress must work together to adequately fund the NPS and explore innovative ways to raise more money, such as reasonable park fees and public-private partnerships
Thanks for the note Senator Murray, but your message of hope only puts me in a deeper depression. Are innovative fund raisers really the solution? Increased park fees? According to Scott Silver at Wild Wilderness, some parks have seen a 500% increase in entrance fees over the last 8 years. And what of these public-private partnerships? Parks are having to rely more and more on these partner groups. Yosemite has the Yosemite Fund, which has helped to build new roads among other projects. Yellowstone has the Yellowstone Park Foundation, which recently contributed $15 million towards the construction of a new visitors center near Old Faithful.

The money from these private partners is helping to keep some of our favorite park services running. But it should not be the job of the private sector to keep our National Parks afloat. This is the role of the U.S. Government. At this point, I am glad for the private sector help, but it makes me defensive. As Lincoln said, our government is "of the people, by the people, for the people", but WHO are these private enterprises gaining more influence, and taking on bigger roles in OUR parks? And to whom are THEY accountable? I don't want to sound like a chicken little who believes the sky is falling, but it does seem that there is a trend towards the role of government in our parks being replaced piece by piece by private interests. There is a word floating around out there that describes this process, and it is a word that all people who enjoy parks should be concerned about. Privatization. Each piece in this process may not seem like a big deal, but as the puzzle comes together it may not be a picture we are happy with. When do we draw the line? Do we even have the power to say "stop"?

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