We are protecting our parks
special to the daily
Open your paper in the next few weeks, and you might see this headline: “Bush budget cuts end 911 coverage for Yosemite.”
The story underneath says an official review of the National Park Service by a government agency found that budget cuts and staff vacancies at Yosemite National Park mean that visitors in life-threatening emergencies will get busy signals or no answer when they call 911. A spokesman for an advocacy group will express the outrage all Americans feel when budget cuts endanger human safety, especially in places like national parks that are so close to our hearts.
The problem is that it won’t be true. Yosemite has been and always will be covered by 911 operators and emergency services 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In fact, the Park Service is improving 911 service at Yosemite by combining operations with two nearby park units ” exactly the type of efficient and effective management Americans expect of their government. If past experience is any indication, however, the inaccuracy of an accusation about budget cuts at national parks won’t change the headlines. Americans cherish our national parks so much that any report of neglect, no matter how unfounded, immediately becomes newsworthy.
The facts speak for themselves, however. In the past five years, the administration has invested record-high levels of funding to improve our parks. In fact, the total national park operations budget increased by nearly $400 million, or 27 percent, from 2001 to 2006.
Since 2001, the Park Service has undertaken projects to improve and upgrade nearly 6,000 facilities. Visitors enjoy improved roads and trails, rehabilitated visitor centers, more accessible campgrounds, and stabilized historic structures.
Meanwhile, the average amount of federal funding spent per visitor to our national parks rose from $5.60 to $7.19, or 28 percent, from 2001 to 2006. Surveys show that 96 percent of visitors say they are satisfied with the facilities, services, and recreational opportunities at our parks. Can any business or organization match such an outstanding satisfaction rate?
Critics find their way around these facts by honing in on the budgets of individual park units. It is true that some park units received funding increases while others did not. As with any enterprise, Park Service officials have to allocate funding based on a variety of factors, such as where visitation is increasing or decreasing and the need to rehabilitate aging facilities.
As good managers, park superintendents are making some adjustments in how they operate. Spending patterns shift as new challenges emerge in law enforcement, icon protection, hurricane preparation, or removal of invasive weeds.
Yet alarming anecdotes are passed on even as they prove false. For example, one anecdote in a Government Accountability Office report recounts that budget cuts have forced Grand Teton National Park to cut the number of staff who pick up litter and clean bathrooms. The truth is that the park has reorganized its workforce, shifting to more seasonal employees during peak visitation to ensure better overall service. Will that stop the headline that says: “Budget cuts lead to dirty bathrooms at Grand Teton?” Not if past experience is any indication.
Though media headlines may announce employment cuts, nine of 12 parks reviewed in the GAO report increased the number of their employees between 2001 and 2005.
From the Statue of Liberty to the Grand Canyon, the 390 units of the National Park System weave a tapestry of who we are as a nation: our history, our values, our culture, and the awesome beauty of our land. Americans can be assured that we are taking good care of this great tapestry, providing both the funding and the innovative management needed to conserve and protect our most precious national treasures.
Lynn Scarlett is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is the Acting
Secretary of the Interior Department.
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