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Workers at national parks say service will erode under new plan

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 1984



Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.

The maintenance crew up on the trail ridge road near the Continental Divide is blowing snow out of 20-foot drifts so tourists can get through the national park by Memorial Day.

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What the ''maintenance'' job description doesn't say is that, already this season, the crew on the monster snow blowers has pulled a dozen ditched motorists to safety, given a few impromptu nature talks, and offered park visitors pointers on outdoorsmanship. The temperament and expertise required of a United States National Park Service employee (ranger, maintenance person, or administrator) are the intangible qualities that bureaucrats couldn't put in a job description . . . until now.

In the name of efficiency, the Reagan administration has directed some Park Service operations to be contracted out to the lowest bidder. That means that the National Park Service is having to define exactly what its employees do, so that contractors can bid on the jobs.

The directive is raising the biggest cry of protest ever to come from the guardians of the nation's remote and protected lands. Veteran employees of the Park Service are concerned about keeping their jobs. In addition, they are disturbed about the prospect of parcelling out segments of what they see as a whole park system - a system designed to protect resources and, at the same time , to provide for their use and enjoyment by the public.

A-76 is an Office of Management and Budget directive that dates back to the 1950s and has been dusted off to accomplish Reagan administration budget cuts. Under the directive, government agencies are to contract out those jobs not ''inherently governmental,'' explains Jeffrey Craig, A-76 coordinator in the Rocky Mountain region. He says that 62 different activities at 18 parks in the country are undergoing the A-76 review.

The Interior Department expects the process to cut as much as 30 percent off National Park Service costs. The Park Service may bid alongside the private sector, but, if undercut by more than 10 percent, it must give up the job to a private contractor for a three-year contract period.

Mr. Craig has the unpopular task of directing park employees through a management analysis that could eliminate their jobs. And while he admits that morale has hit rock bottom among employees, Craig believes many Park Service operations, when defined, won't be profitable for the private sector.

''I think we're efficient inherently. Contractors just want to do one thing. But a rigorous cost analysis shows they (Park Service employees) are forced to stop to do other things . . . for example, they have to be fire trained because they are the fire brigade at national parks. A lot of contractors are objecting to that,'' Craig says.

While Rocky Mountain National Park is undergoing an analysis of its maintenance program, Yellowstone, for example, is taking bids on trash disposal. Companies from North Carolina to Tacoma, Wash., will be bidding on the contract to begin next fall. But, Craig says, key to the bid is whether the same level of service can be provided. ''It sounds easy but everything relates to the ecology (of the park),'' he says.

Disgruntled Park Service employees are asking whether efficiency alone can provide integrity of park protection and enjoyment for visitors. For providing these things, the National Park Service has been considered an 8,500-member fraternity that is unique among federal bureaucracies for its proud, content, yet low-paid employees. They view their jobs as a way to be close to the outdoors.

''Most of them are here for life, and it's not because they're well paid. What you get them to do for a GS-9 (a pay classification) is incredible, and it can only be because they're dedicated to a lifestyle,'' Craig says.

Paul Barber, for example, left a private-sector construction job for a Rocky Mountain Park maintenance job. Mr. Barber, a snow-blower operator who weathered to a hearty brown color in his first winter on the job, willingly took an $8 -an-hour pay cut to be hired on at the Park Service. He's an outdoorsman who views his new job as a career in the nation's most beautiful spots.

''How do you bring somebody in here who has never been here before'' and impress upon him the importance of the Alpine tundra which grows in Rocky Mountain National Park, asks Ron Cotten, chief of maintenance here. He and his men, the ones up on the snow blowers this month, can tell visitors just how important and rare the tundra is - it was the major reason the park was established. ''It (tundra) takes 100 years to regenerate, so if you miss the road and plow out through a field, well . . . you just can't do that here.''

''It's not the money,'' says Mr. Cotten, explaining why there is a six-year waiting list to get a Park Service job. ''They can make a lot more elsewhere. But here it's the esprit de corps, a concern for what they're doing,'' adds Cotten, who like others in senior positions have fought to leave administrative posts to get back out in the field.

Craig says that if the private sector doesn't win the bids, which will be awarded starting May 30, the A-76 process will have served its purpose by helping administrators review and cut their budgets. Others, like Ron Cotten, believe the process is shaking the foundations of the park service and may be diluting its strength by discouraging younger employees from giving it serious career consideration.