In the eyes of Americans, nothing tops national parks as a popular government program. Not defense or education. Not Social Security or fighting crime, public opinion polls say. That's one reason President Bush declared this week to be "National Park Week."
But as the wear and tear of all that love takes its toll on nearly 400 park units around the country, and as Uncle Sam's expenses for war in Iraq, hurricane cleanup, and other activities continue to push the federal deficit ever higher, parks around the country are facing a budget crunch.
From Joshua Tree in the southern California desert to Acadia on the coast of Maine, national parks are tightening their budget belts - shortening some facility hours, increasing fees for camping and other activities, recruiting retirees and other unpaid volunteers to conduct education and interpretation programs, sharing archaeologists and other specialists, and seeking financial support from corporations.
"These are challenging times," says Elaine Sevy, deputy chief of communications for the National Park Service. "I'm not going to deny that."
Will this affect the park experience for vacationers this summer? Parks advocates and former park service employees say so, predicting reduced visitor services and increased fees.
"It very definitely is belt- tightening or more," says Bill Wade, chairman of the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees and former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. "We are in the process right now of surveying some parks to find out how the quality of park experiences and protection of resources are likely to be impacted, this summer and beyond."
The Government Accountability Office (the investigative arm of Congress) recently visited 12 park units. Managers there told GAO officials that they do not have the financial resources to keep up with increasing costs, including congressionally authorized salary and benefits for employees, rising utility costs, maintenance needs, and required law enforcement levels, including back-country patrols.
"In response to daily operations allocation trends, increased costs, and new policy requirements, parks reported that they either eliminated or reduced some services," the GAO recently reported. "They also relied on other authorized funding sources and volunteers to pay for activities that have historically been paid for from the allocations for daily operations."
This worries park advocates.
"The GAO report confirms that America's national parks are losing ground, and straining to survive shrinking budgets," says Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), an advocacy group in Washington.
A year ago, the Congressional Research Service estimated that the Park Service backlog in maintenance and resource protection totals from $4.5 billion to $9.7 billion - upkeep for some 8,000 miles of roads, 1,500 bridges, 400 dams, and 30,000 structures at 388 national park sites (parks, monuments, battlefields, historic sites, lakeshores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House).
Then there's the cost of paying park rangers, keeping the lights on, running thousands of vehicles and hundreds of visitor centers, and the other necessities required to handle nearly 300 million visitors a year. As the NPCA sees it, there's a "chronic annual operating shortfall," exceeding $600 million a year.
Aside from the politics of who's responsible for such growing needs, the Park Service has to make do with the budget put forth by the president and approved by Congress.
What that means, says Ms. Sevy, is having each park superintendent work to keep operating costs at about 80 percent of his or her annual budget, leaving the rest for special projects like natural resource studies or restoration of trails.
"It's not a cut," says Sevy. "It's just to get them to manage their budgets more efficiently."
To advocacy groups, that sounds a lot like a budget cut - $100 million less in the fiscal year 2007 overall parks budget now being reviewed by Congress, as the NPCA sees it. In any case, Sevy acknowledges, "there's no way around" the need for some parks to reduce some services and hours of operation.
In Congress, 70 representatives and senators are sponsoring the bipartisan National Park Centennial Act. Using federal treasury money plus a voluntary check-off on income tax returns, the bill would increase funding for maintenance as well as natural and cultural preservation projects through 2016 - the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
The debate over national parks funding goes back several years to when US Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers was fired for talking with a reporter about staff reductions. Ms. Chambers' legal dispute with the federal government over her termination continues. But since then, the park service has directed its employees to be more open with the public over budget challenges.