THE job of the National Park Service is to protect and to make available to the American people the nation's "crown jewels" - 359 parks, historic sites, monuments, battlefields, and other units totaling more than 80 million acres. With nearly 16,000 employees and an annual budget approaching $1.5 billion, it is a very big job.
Last October, on the 75th anniversary of the Park Service, some 600 participants - park officials, academics, and other experts - gathered in Vail, Colo., to assess how things were going. From that group, a 14-member steering committee was asked to report its findings. They were told not to hold back, and they didn't.
Their report, released last month, paints a troubling picture of an agency beset by "major problems." Among these: "weakening of morale and effectiveness"; "eroding professionalism"; "inadequately trained managers"; "politicized decisionmaking" adversely affecting a dedicated but underpaid staff; a budget from Congress and the White House that has seen no growth over the past decade, despite a 25 percent rise in park visits; "externally generated degradation... motivated by rapid change in the areas arou nd and near many parks"; educational outreach that is "rare and not systematic"; and a "compelling need" for leadership to meet these challenges.
Mike Hayden, assistent secretary of the Interior Department termed it "an open, candid, and thorough review of the issues." He called on Congress to increase resources for parks and to stop playing "park-barrel politics" by pushing for home-district projects "that have little national significance, thin the blood, and demean the integrity of the National Park System."
In receiving the report, Park Service director James Ridenour acknowledged the "very difficult challenges to, and pressures on, the Park Service," and he said "it is time to make broad changes in this great organization."