National Parks Tap Big Business As a Way Out of Financial Woods

High atop Mt. Cammerer in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, a once-rotting fire tower has been refurbished - compliments of locals and Lowe's retail chain. Not far away, Georgia Pacific Corp. is donating $50,000 for 2,200 picnic tables and tent platforms.

Both typify how private money is increasingly being used to help refurbish the country's deteriorating national parks and monuments.

Faced with a backlog of maintenance needs totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars and a Congress looking to limit handouts, the National Park Service (NPS) is leaning harder on corporate America.

While parks have been receiving individual contributions for a number of years, the influx of corporate money is relatively new - and growing. For companies, the giving represents a way to help foster a good image. For the parks, it means more trail restoration and ranger housing.

"I think we've just begun to scratch the surface of the willingness of corporations and private donors as well," says Bob Miller, management assistant at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Although the corporate donations still represent a small percentage of the money needed to keep the nation's outdoor treasures open and in good shape, they come at a critical time for the Park Service.

"This year for the first time it's going to be very visible to visitors that we just don't have the resources to care for the parks," says National Parks spokesman David Barna. Grass won't be cut as often, restrooms won't be cleaned as much, and litter won't get picked up.

Parks have been struggling with tight budgets for years. But the shortfall is particularly acute this year because of several factors: heavier-than-normal storm damage across the US, thousands of rangers who will get back pay under a new retirement system, and a backlog of repair work.

Part of the problem, park officials say, is that inflation has eroded buying power. Though Congress has awarded the Park Service a 1 to 2 percent annual budget increase since 1984, the money is not enough to offset 2.5 percent employee raises or other expenses, even after trimming some services. This year's operating budget is about $1.1 billion, up 1 percent over 1995.

"We're having to do things we didn't have to do 15 years ago that have put us behind," says Mr. Miller. "We have a whole slew of non-native pests and diseases - like wild hogs and kudzu - that we weren't dealing with at all until about 1980, and it's been growing steadily."

Coinciding with those needs are more cars and campers straining parks from Maine to Montana. Great Smoky Mountains National Park had 3 million cars come through in 1986 and 4 million in 1993 - a 30 percent increase. This year for the first time it closed all campsites during the winter and has shut down two campsites and two picnic areas for the summer season. It has also reduced the numbers of rangers.

Not everyone agrees the NPS needs more money. "I think you have management in the park system that is not particularly innovative, and it's quite bureaucratic," says Robert Nelson of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington. "It's also become saddled with a large number of sites that are questionable as to their real national significance, but yet it's spending considerable amounts of money on these things."

Mr. Nelson says one solution for the budget shortage would be to raise fees at national parks. Currently, many older ones such as Yellowstone charge the same fee they did at the turn of the century. Those fees now go to the Treasury to pay off the national debt and not back to the parks. Congress is working on legislation to change the fee structure.

Others see companies and individuals playing more of a role. The National Park Foundation, a nonprofit that raises private-sector funds, is more actively soliciting firms. When it started its corporate-donor program in 1991, it raised $1.3 million. Last year corporate gifts totaled $2.9 million. The group expects to raise $20 million by 2000.

A bill being heard in Congress today would give the foundation new authority to look for official sponsors for America's parks, much like the Olympics, but without logos emblazoned on picnic tables. "It's startling the amount of money it could bring in," says Sue Waldron, director of the NPS's partnership office.

The foundation has already generated donations from companies such as Canon USA, Chevron, and Target, which has raised about $1 million for restoration projects since 1993 and this year launched a $5 million fund-raising campaign to help refurbish the Washington Monument.

Target has always had a history of giving to nonprofits, says company spokeswoman Gail Dorn. But the firm doesn't expect neon recognition for their charity. "It's not seen as a marketing effort to put our bull's-eye up on top of the monument," she says. "But we are moving into the Washington, D.C., area with new stores, and this is a very visible way for us to not just get our name out there but have them understand what kind of company we are."

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