National Parks fast falling into disrepair

From aging facilities to overgrown trails, reaching the backcountry is getting harder.

Leaky lodge roofs. Potholed roads. Beaches closed for lack of a lifeguard. Not enough rangers in their Smokey Bear hats teaching kids about flora and fauna.

It's not a picture Americans want to imagine for their national parks - the "crown jewels" often likened to European cathedrals.

But as the nation approaches the year's first holiday weekend when families head for the mountains, seashore, and battlefield monuments, there's a groundswell of concern (bordering on revolt) among current and retired US Park Service employees over the condition of national parks.

Despite the efforts and rhetoric of Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Park Service Director Fran Miainella, the backlog of much-needed park maintenance continues to grow, these employees say.

Insiders have leaked a Park Service memo ordering park superintendents to refer to budget-driven program cuts as "service level adjustments." Such adjustments, the memo suggests, could include closing visitor centers on some holidays, cutting back on ranger talks and tours, eliminating lifeguard services at beaches, and closing parks two days a week. In a sideshow drama, the chief of the park police in Washington has been threatened with dismissal for speaking out about budget needs and staffing levels.

Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental groups has just sued the Interior Department over its failure to minimize the air pollution impacts of nearby development on more than a dozen national parks and wilderness areas in the Rocky Mountain West. Interior is charged with failure to uphold the Clean Air Act around parks.

The National Park Service is a mammoth organization. With some 20,000 professionals and 125,000 volunteers, it oversees 388 parks, monuments, battlefields, historic sites, lakeshores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House. The number of park units has nearly doubled since 1970, and annual visits now total nearly 300 million. All of this costs some $2.3 billion a year.

But critics say (and administration officials acknowledge) that's not enough to keep the resources in good shape while meeting the recreational and educational expectations of visitors. According to the General Accounting Office, the backlog of deferred maintenance at national parks has grown to something between $4 billion and $6.8 billion.

Speaking at Everglades National Park the first summer of his presidency, President Bush pledged to "restore and renew America's national parks." Since then, however, the administration and Congress have budgeted $662 million in new funding for such improvements. That sounds like a lot, but spread over four budget cycles (2002-2005) it's inadequate to meet the need, say watchdog groups.

The private National Parks Conservation Association says $600 million in additional funds are needed every year to adequately chip away at the park maintenance backlog. Among the problems outlined in the association's recent report:

• Hikers cannot reach backcountry cabins at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State because necessary bridges and trails need repair.

• Large sections of a historic lighthouse and Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park in South Florida are unsafe.

• The visitor center at the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii is sinking.

• Yosemite National Park needs more than $40 million for backlogged projects, including trail and campground maintenance, sewer system replacement, and electrical upgrades.

• Ancient stone structures are collapsing at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.

• At Yellowstone, 150 miles of roads have not been repaired in years, and many of the park's several hundred buildings are in poor condition.

"Claims that there are now more dollars than ever before, [are] simply not true at the park level," says Bill Wade, former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and spokesman for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. "Parks across the system are having to significantly cut personnel - including maintenance, law enforcement, and interpretive staff as well as resource specialists - because the discretionary budget at the park level has diminished over the past several years."

The Park Service retirees group has been joined by active-duty insiders - the Association of National Park Rangers and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility - in publicizing in-house memos sent to park officials.

"It is now time to ... determine what actually has to happen to stay within the funds you have been allocated," orders one such memo. "Please send us a bulleted list of 'service level adjustments' you plan to make." Among the suggested cuts: Closing visitor centers on federal holidays, eliminating guided ranger tours, and closing parks on Sundays and Mondays.

Part of the problem is, the park service has had other expensive obligations to meet: scheduled pay raises for federal employees, cleaning up after hurricanes and other natural disasters, and - since the terrorist attacks of 911 - providing extra security for places like the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument when the Department of Homeland Security declares a Code Orange alert.

While noting the size of the task, political appointees running the Interior Department and National Park Service tend to emphasize the positive. Park Service director Fran Mainella recently told lawmakers that the agency has "more funds per employee, per acre, and per visitor than at any time in its history." Since the Bush administration took over, she said, more than 1,300 repair and rehabilitation projects have been funded.

Meanwhile, the Park Service and the Travel Industry Association of America have launched a "See America's National Parks" program to encourage Americans to visit their national parks. But in the current budgetary climate, say some observers, that may be frustrating.

"You can't engage in large-scale efforts with the travel industry to ramp up visitors and then at the same time pressure superintendents to cut service," says Denny Huffman, former superintendent of Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah. "The only possible outcome ... is a reduced quality in the visitor's experience."

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