Endangering Our National Parks: An Editorial

White House policy threatens the environmental standards, fire safety, and very existence of our National Parks and the local economies they support

What if you were the boss, and you discovered that nine out of ten of your employees thought you were making decisions detrimental to the company but darn helpful to some of your close friends?

That's how 84 percent of National Park Service employees feel, according to a survey commissioned by the Rockefeller Family Fund's Campaign to Protect America's Lands (CPAL). They are concerned that "Decisions are being influenced by politics rather than professional experiences/science."

Former Shenandoah National Park Superintendent Bill Wade sounds the alarm that, "the national park system is under attack."

What is it that's threatening everything from the Grand Canyon to the Great Smoky Mountains? Is it the California wildfires, law-breaking logging companies, or some supernova form of Dutch Elm Disease? Nope. It's a man who, ironically, is named after a plant himself: George W. Bush.

CPAL Director Peter Altman says "All of America's public lands are under assault by an administration that favors corporations over conservation."

These Are Not Happy Campers

The CPAL survey showed that 84 percent of National Park Service employees have expressed "a great deal of concern" about whether or not they will be able to protect park resources.

Possibly in part because they might not be working there much longer.

The Bush Administration has targeted the Department of the Interior-which oversees the National Parks and Forest services-to be analyzed for the first round of "Competitive Sourcing." That is another term for privatizing, turning over to outside contractors what are currently government payroll jobs—1,700 of them, in the case of the National Park Service. The Administration has claimed this will produce a savings of 20 percent for taxpayers.

Since when was adding a layer of middlemen a way to save money?

The idea is that government will pay private companies to manage park resources, and those companies will in turn hire and pay workers to do it. Think about that. If the government wants to lop 20 percent off the budget for parks, that means these outside companies will have to try and take the jobs currently being done by professional, trained park employees, and do them on 80 percent of the current budget.

And, since these outside companies are, unlike the government, profit-making enterprises, some of that 80 percent will have to be set aside for their profits, which means less than 80 percent of the money will go into maintaining our parks.

Just which positions will they outsource? Already, outside concessions run most of the parks' peripheral businesses. The in-park hotels, restaurants, gift shops, gas stations, and book stores—all privately run. Outfitters who set up shop in the gateway towns are the ones who take visitors on backwoods treks and canoe trips. Even bureaucratic, back room stuff like land appraisals, engineering work, and architectural design is largely contracted out these days.

What's left are the park rangers and the historians, the supervisors and scientists, the maintenance workers repairing trails and the smiling folks wearing "interpreter" badges who teach school groups about conservation. The very folks who enrich our park-going experiences and provide for our safety.

All of them, by the way, are cross-trained. Maintenance workers are trained in search and rescue efforts, and they're often the ones who find that ten-year-old boy lost in the woods for two days. During a 4th of July weekend car accident in Yellowstone, a nearby road repair crew having lunch heard the radio call and rushed to the scene to direct traffic while a park geologist—who was a certified EMT—arrived to administer first aid to the victims. Could we expect the same from employees hired for less than 80 percent of the pay by some low-ball bidding outside contractor?

The parks already receive woefully inadequate funding-two thirds of the level necessary, according to a Nov. 9 Los Angels Times article by Eric Bailey. Bailey writes that the annual shortfall of more than $600 million "has meant a lack of services, reduced public education programs, and deteriorating structures." Do we want it to get worse?

Wasting Your Money

This is all assuming that the Competitive Sourcing initiative will save the government-by which I mean us, the taxpayers-money. So far, it has done the opposite. The whole privatization fiasco has produced only a massive net loss.

The government has already spent $16 million on the outsourcing study, to which they will add another estimated $110 million over the next three years, according to a CPAL report. Note that that's not $16 million spent on doing the outsourcing itself; just on the study to see what privatization might save. The conclusions that these very well-paid contractors came to: privatization could save taxpayers a whopping $600,000. Subtract that from the $16 million spent on the study, and total net cost to the taxpayer: $15.4 million.

"President Bush's privatization program is taking money out of our parks and public lands and putting it into private contractor's pockets-with nothing gained for our taxpayers or our lands," says CPAL spokesman Chris Fitzsimon.

The tune is largely the same over at the US Forest Service, which has spent $18 million on outsourcing studies to come up with $1.2 million in savings spread over the next six years. And it only cost us $18 million to find that out.

This kind of fuzzy accounting puts Enron to shame.

"So far," says Vera Smith, Conservation Director of the Colorado Mountain Club. "The outsourcing studies have diverted millions of dollars-dollars that should have been spend on managing wildlife, maintaining facilities, and helping visitors-to confirm that federal land managers are, in fact, doing a good job."

Not only are the park workers already doing a good job maintaining our 338 National Parks, Monuments, and Recreation Areas-natural wonderlands and historic monuments that are enjoyed by some 280 million visitors, tourists, and campers each year. They're also maintaining the engines of economic growth in local tourism industries across the nation.

Parks are Good Business

"California National Parks are both environmental and economic treasures," said Senator Barbara Boxer, endorsing the National Parks Conservation Association Nov 6 report on the economic impact of California's 23 National Parks. "They not only provide respite from our busy lives, they also make important contributions to our economy."

"Important contributions" may be an understatement. The report found that those 23 parks bring $1.18 billion a year into the state and local economies, providing for 30,000 private sector jobs. That's 30,000 jobs in addition to the folks working for the National Park Service.

Heck, if you take just the state's ten most popular parks in 2001—a year when travel numbers everywhere took a major nosedive in the final four months—the top ten still drew 11 million visitors. Those visitors pumped $642 million into the local coffers, and supported nearly 17,000 jobs.

We're talking the maids in the local motels and the old guy who runs the coffee shop on Main Street in the town just outside the park gates. These tourism boom towns draw in new blood for the community (think of that laid-back, dreadlocked 22 year old who leads river rafting trips) and wads of cash for local coffers.

The Los Angeles Times article cited above points to Scott Munger's seven-room B&B in Lemon Cove, a 190-person hamlet high in the Sierra Nevada. This tiny inn in the middle of nowhere is nonetheless booked solid by 3,500 people each year—because 16 miles up the road lie the entrances to Sequoia and King's Canyons parks.

"This report confirms what we have long known intuitively, that California's National Parks are not merely natural wonders, but are integral to our quality of life and state economy," said Sen. Diane Feinstein. "By taking good care of these special places and providing park visitors with a quality experience, we sustain jobs and support our tourism economy while also protecting our natural and cultural heritage. It's a win-win situation."

And it goes far beyond the Golden State. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, in 2001, the park system's 280 million visitors collectively spent $10.6 billion during their visits. $4.5 billion of that went directly to personal income generation-that's a fancy way of saying the wages, salaries, and payroll benefits of the some 267,000 jobs in the parks and related tourism industries.

The Forest Service estimates that the 209 million annual visitors to America's roadless 58 acres pump $600 million into the economy and support 24,000 jobs.

The Bush White House would like to change all that. >> more...

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in November 2003.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.