Copyright, Randall D. Payne
Rocky Mountain National Park

The NPS At 75: Parks Under Siege
by Robert Cahn, Christian Science Monitor

This article first appeared in the Ranger: The Journal of the Association of National Park Rangers, Volume 7 No. 3 - Summer, 1991. This copyrighted article is reprinted with permission of the Association of National Park Rangers. All rights reserved.

People visiting this grand old national park will find most of the scenery, wildlife, and thermal wonders as spectacular as ever this summer. The park's natural resources, says superintendent Bob Barbee, are in better shape than they have been for years.

Like many of the managers and rangers throughout the National Park System, however, Mr. Barbee worries about his staff's ability to protect these resources, maintain facilities, and continue to give visitors the kind of park tradition of the National Park Service.

Visitors will find 60 percent of the roads in bad condition, trails needing maintenance, and fewer ranger talks and guided nature walks. A ranger will not be handy to start a stalled car; responses to emergency situations may be delayed. Yellowstone has not been able to keep up with inflated operating costs, so the aging infrastructure deteriorates and the well-being of its wildlife and natural resources becomes increasingly precarious.

Most of the challenges that daily confront park managers involve lack of money. Many of the 357 units of the National Park Service are starved for enough funds and personnel to provide adequate maintenance and protection and to help people experience nature firsthand and gain a deeper understanding of the American past.

This year is supposed to be a time of celebration, commemorating 75 years since the birth of the National Park Service on August 25, 1916. But among the park service managers and rangers, there is little celebration. Instead, it is a time for hunkering down.

Most park workers remain highly motivated and consider the United States park system the best in the world. But morale suffers when overworked and underpaid rangers see limited opportunity for advancement. Congress votes new units into existence without providing adequate money to operate them. As a result, already sparse staffs in existing parks find themselves spread ever more thinly, with growing demands.

Rangers on patrol in Alaska

In the past, a national parks advisory board reviewed plans for expanding the system. The board's work was ended in the 1980s. At present, proposals for new parks receive no independent review.

The system's 357 park units cover more than 80 million acres. Between 1950 and 1980, even with some areas being consolidated and a few withdrawn, the number still grew by 138 aceas. Under the Reagan administration, that rapid growth stopped. But use hasn't slowed; more than 260 million visits are expected in 1991.

Almost every park has had to cut corners and services, delay repairs, lay off seasonal staff, and otherwise scrounge to make do with insufficient funds. At Yellowstone, for instance, chief ranger Dan Sholly had to recall the back-country ranger stationed at Heart Lake after Labor Day. The area went unprotected, and early last October vandals threw large rocks into the Rustic Geyser near Heart Lake, permanently damaging the geyser and disturbing the hot springs ecosystem nearby.

An additional $2 million given Yellowstone this year by the federal government for operating expenses still does not cover its current costs. Nor does it come anywhere near covering expensive repairs to the park's aging roads and buildings. Barbee will have to use half of the $2 million for non-budgeted expenses such as pay raises and retirement benefits, increases in utility and fuel prices, and other inflationary factors.

A major expense not completely covered by the budget is the demand to keep the park open from December through March each year for about 100,000 winter enthusiasts. The park spends eight times as much to provide for each winter visitor as it does for each of the 2.7 million who come during the other nine months.

"Back 25 years ago, we only needed one ranger to 'winter in' at Old Faithful, plus a few protection rangers to routinely patrol the boundaries and inaccessible interior areas," says Mr. Sholly. "Now we need 67 in the park interior. Back then only six tracked vehicles arrived all winter. Now hundreds of snowmobilers travel the groomed interior road system each day, as well as dozens of large snow-coaches and tracked vans carrying skiers and sightseeing visitors. Many stay overnight at Old Faithful and require other services.

"We have had to buy and maintain a dozen grooming machines costing $150,000 each to pack and smooth the roads, and we have to own and maintain 85 snowmobiles for ranger patrols and operational use. The added winter costs mean we are hiring a lot fewer summer seasonal rangers, and we have to shorten the season they work," Sholly adds.

Visits to other parks and talks with managers and rangers revealed similar problems in park protection, maintenance, interpretation, and visitor services. Though the overall park system allocation for operations is currently $876 million, the budgets of some parks are lower in real dollars or purchasing power than they were in 1980, and the parks have far greater demands on them than a decade ago. Park managers have to cope by not hiring seasonal rangers, leaving unfilled permanent positions vacant, postponing maintenance, cutting out visitor programs, or reducing park hours.

Yosemite National Park — where organized interpretive programs such as campfire talks and ranger-guided nature walks started in the early 1920s — had 44 interpreters in 1987, and only 27 last year, even fewer than 30 years ago. Instead of the traditional evening programs at each of the four large campgrounds throughout Yosemite Valley, the Park Service could afford to put on only one program each night for the entire valley last year.

Matthews Arm campground in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park had been used by more than 30,000 campers annually. It was closed to save funds last year and is closed again this year for rehabilitation. Shenandoah has 18 fewer seasonal rangers now than three years ago, and they work a shorter season. To repair neglected buildings, vehicles, roads, trails, campgrounds, and other facilities at Shenandoah would cost $7 million.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and preserve in Alaska, largest of the national parks, has only three permanent protection rangers and six seasonals to look after its 13 million acres (four times larger than Yellowstone). Poaching of trophy dall sheep, grizzly and black bears, moose, and caribou is rampant, as is illegal aerial hunting of wolves. The resource management program is short $1 million a year in base funding.

"I wonder if the Park Service can afford the new parks in Alaska, and if the nation is willing to pay the bill," says Karen Wade, superintendent of Wrangell-St. Elias. "I don't think the people understand that they added a lot of land but never provided for the basic caretaking."

After a Park Service regional director commented at a congressional hearing last year that some parks were so proverty stricken that they required "intensive care," House Interior Department appropriations subcommittee chairman Sidney R. Yates (D) of Illinois asked Park Service director James M. Ridenour to submit a list of specific amounts needed to put "intensive care" parks on the road to recovery. The resulting list amounted to an additional $370 million. In response, the committee added $28 million to the 1991 operating budget. The budgetary boost had only a slight effect on the need, which grows more unmanageable by the year.

Money alone cannot erase many threats to park resources, such as geothermal drilling just outside Yellowstone's borders that could harm Old Faithful, development on the borders of Glacier and other parks, water scarcity and pollution ruining the Everglades ecosystem, or air pollution obscuring the vistas at Grand Canyon and Shenandoah national parks. Solutions to these threats will come only through legislation, political leadership, and public awareness.

Private donations from individuals or from associations formed to support particular parks help support some activities. But the amount of money from such sources is small. There is growing interest in expanding the concept of federal, state, and private-sector partnerships for protecting natural and cultural resources, and for conducting research.

At a recent hearing of the House Interior Department Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Chester G. Atkins (D) of Massachusetts said that the needs of the national parks are overwhelming, and administration initiatives to increase the budget "do not even scratch the surface."

"At some point, we ought to be honest with the American public and say, we are not going to protect these things that we call jewels in our system," Mr. Atkins added. "And we are going to let them go because we are not prepared to pay the money for it, rather than pretending that we are going to protect them and letting them gradually deteriorate."

* * * * *

Lean Days for Parks

The following editorial on the status of the NPS appeared in the Monitor with Bob Cahn's articles:

The national parks system in the United States faces major fiscal difficulties, as the Monitor series by Robert Cahn this week has pointed out. The parks enjoy a steady increase in the numbers of Americans who seek out their nation's natural wonders and historical sites each summer — and increasingly in other seasons as well. But the resources needed to maintain the parks are stretched thin in these days of budgetary pressures.

Under current budet practices in Washington, getting more money for one federal program requires slicing it from another. How will the parks fare in this fiscal environent?

At the least, the present level of spending should be sustained, with resources shifting to such crucial areas as ranger salaries. And extra vigilance is demanded to assure that the Park Service is not loaded down with added responsibilities for new park areas pushed through Congress as pet projects of particular legislators.

The critical need is protection and optimum utilization of the areas already under Park Service care. The park-visiting public benefits, of course, from well-maintained, adequately staffed parks. But the public benefit could be enhanced if the parks' potential for scientific research, as well as recreation, were more fully exploited.

The vast natural areas of the parks could be superb laboratories for studying the interdependence of species within ecosystems and the impact of man-made environmental phenomena such as global warming and acid rain. Some of this activity is already under way at national parks, but it is the barest of beginnings.

With relatively small investments, like the $1.9 million currently being spent for global climate-change research in a few of the 357 park units, programs with potentially big payoffs to the public could be nurtured.

Mr. Cahn's writings over the past 23 years — beginning with his original Pulitzer Prize winning series in the Monitor, "Will Success Spoil the National Parks?" — have underscored both the inherent value and fragility of America's parklands. Perhaps the question for the 1990s is, "Will the National Parks Go Begging?"

Driving his pale green patrol car slowly along Skyline Drive, park ranger Reed Johnston surveys wooded mountain beauty and vast valley views.

At the head of a trail he notices a hiker romping with a young golden retriever. Ranger Johnston stops to warn the visitor that the dog must be put on a leash. It is one of his few encounters with visitors on this cold spring morning — a respite from the frantic days at the height of the summer camping season or the fall, when thousands of people from all over the nation come to see Shenandoah's spectacular autumn colors.

During those busy times, he may also be called out of bed to track down poachers hunting deer inside park boundaries or summoned to fight a fire.

After earning a college degree in history, Johnston decided to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a park ranger. He joined the United States National Park Service seven years ago at a salary of $12,000 a year, assigned to give interpretive talks at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in his native Texas. He eventually became a commissioned law-enforcement ranger, certified in wildfire fighting, search and rescue and emergency medical services. At 38, he should be in the prime of his earning capacity and saving toward college educations for his two small children. But his annual salary is only $19,200. Much as Johnston loves his work, he cannot afford to stay, and has given notice to the Park Service. He is leaving this month to work for the United States Forest Service. There he will get higher pay immediately and be able to advance quickly.

Johnston is part of a growing yearly exodus of skilled rangers who leave the Park Service for better salaries and opportunities in other federal or state agencies. They wish they could stay in what most people would consider a desirable and fulfilling career. During a congressional hearing on the problems faced by rangers, Rep. Constance A. Morella (R) of Maryland summed up the dilemma with an old saying, "One cannot feed a family on sunsets."

As hosts to millions of visitors and caretakers of the nation's natural and cultural crown jewels, national park rangers enforce the law, fight fires, and rescue hikers lost in the wilderness or stranded on cliffs. Visitors, especially children, idolize the uniformed ranger who leads nature walks or gives campfire talks.

In better days, low salaries were more than compensated for by the satisfying work. Employee housing in beautiful park surroundings was priced within reach of ranger salaries, and the option of transferring to new jobs in other parks opened up plenty of career opportunities.

Today most of those "perks" are gone. For those required to live in the parks, much of the housing is substandard, and rents are keyed to the often-inflated rates charged in communities near the parks, in accord with federal Office of Management and Budget demands.

Rangers working at urban parks often find local rents far beyond their means. In recent years at Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, some rangers had to sleep in their cars until they could find shelter they could afford. Some park units in or close to urban areas have been losing 20 percent or more of their permanent rangers each year, although new cost-of-living provisions for Park Service employees in eight urban areas may help to stem that flow.

Over the past 20 years, Congress has added 107 new areas to the National Park System. But administration policies over that period prohibited creating enough additional positions to staff the new areas adequately. Consequently, some rangers had to be shifted from the older parks to staff the new ones.

The number of visits has risen about 100 million and the acreage to be administered by the Park Service has nearly tripled. But for the last 12 years the ranger force has remained at around 3,200. It's possible for visitors to be in a national park for a day or more without ever seeing a park ranger.

Attracting well-qualified young applicants is difficult. Park Service recruiters at college job fairs recount being laughed at when they tell promising candidates that the starting salary is about $16,000. The candidates are even more turned off when they learn of the limited opportunity for career advancement. Some staffers now may spend most of their careers in one park because of a scarcity of openings at higher grade levels.

"The Park Service is losing its ability to compete, especially for the pool of young, highly qualified recent college graduates," says Park Service Director James M. Ridenour. "More than a third of new hires lack a four-year college degree, and among those with degrees, only 50 percent hold them in subjects related to parks and recreation management, history, and the natural and biological sciences."

As the park system and visitation have grown, rangers have had to pay increasing attention to preventing crime and apprehending lawbreakers. Completion of a three-month law-enforcement course is now required of all rangers with law-enforcement duties, with an annual 40-hour refresher training. Each commissioned protection ranger is required to carry a weapon. Last year, a ranger at Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi was shot to death while on patrol.

Last May, ranger Wayne Westphal was patrolling a remote part of California's Death Valley National Monument, with the nearest help 50 miles away. He narrowly escaped after surprising a heavily armed group of men operating an illegal methamphetamine drug laboratory. He was able to get back to his patrol vehicle, radio for help, and cut off their escape route, resulting in the arrest and conviction of seven persons and the confiscation of drugs worth more than $1 million. The drug dealers received sentences of 25 to 30 years without parole.

The majority of rangers spend their time in law-enforcement and visitor services. As a result, their duties as resource managers can suffer. "The natural resource program has relied on rangers in large part to detect developing problems and then carry out solutions devised by resource-management specialists and scientists," says Walt Dabney, chief ranger of the National Park Service. "But with our limited staffs in the parks and the day-to-day visitor demands, rangers often do not have time to work in the back country and do the resource-management work they would like to be involved with. And the parks suffer when the resources aren't adequately managed."

Interpreter at Blue Ridge Parkway

Some rangers, known as interpreters, devote themselves primarily to designing and carrying out educational and informational programs for the public. Traditionally, the Park Service has relied on employees hired just for the interpretive programs. Many seasonal jobs have gone to professors and teachers who looked forward to spending summer vacations working in the parks. But park superintendents, needing to do more with less, have had to cut back sharply on hiring seasonals. At the same time, fewer qualified people are willing to do the seasonal jobs.

So the parks are forced to reduce the number of walks and talks, and are turning to volunteers to help fill the gap. Full-time interpretive rangers thus find a large share of their time going into training and organizing volunteers and inexperienced seasonal workers.

Rangers cling to the hope that the hard times will eventually turn around. The Association of National Park Rangers (ANPR) issued a report two years ago based on candid observations and ideas from 500 rangers.

The ANPR report was submitted to the National Park Service director and key congressional and conservation leaders, it outlines five major objectives for improvment: cost-of-living adjustments of at least 25 percent for rangers in major metropolitan areas; housing allowances for employees living outside park boundaries and free or reduced rents for those who must live in the parks; raising the minimum grade level for rangers; development of a comprehensive personnel-management plan to guide the future of the ranger profession; and a requirement that all new rangers have a degree in a field associated with natural or cultural sciences, such as history, architecture, and archaeology.

A recent survey of government em.ployees found a significant decline in Park Service employees' attitudes toward their jobs, the agency management, and the rewards of their work. Nevertheless, the survey found job satisfaction was higher in the Park Service than in the government as a whole.

"Despite being battered and beleaguered by economic and other forces for the last decade, national park rangers are still more dedicated and have a higher espirit de corps than almost any other group you can name," says Bill Halainen, editor of Ranger Magazine, the journal of ANPR. "Rangers are a rare breed, each a unique cross of idealist, hard-headed pragmatist, adventurer, and self-sufficient individualists."

* * * * *

At a conference this fall in Vail, Colorado, conservation leaders, along with administration, congressional and Park Service officials, will focus on solutions (to many of these problems). They will consider ways to improve management within the service and look at visitor needs and expectations. They will address protection of the natural features and wildlife and ways to improve maintenance.

"In my 26 years as a ranger, I've seen the Park Service go through some hard times, but none as bad as now," says Rick Smith, an associate director of the Park Service's Southwest Region and former president of the Association of National Park Rangers.

"For 10 or more years we've been losing ground, and lack of money is only one of the reasons. We in the Park Service, along with the administration and Congress and all Americans who value their national parks, need to ask some realistic questions.

In the absence of enough money, why should we be taking on new kinds of areas to manage? With staff spread so thinly, should we close some parks to visitors while the available staff try to take care of some of the maintenance and resource problems? "We need to keep our great tradition in mind while asking ourselves what we want to look like 25 years from now," Smith says. "The best way we can observe this 75th anniversary of the agency that administers this system is with a realistic vision and rededication to keeping the parks alive and well for future generations to enjoy."

Bob Cahn, a former staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor, has followed issues affecting national parks for nearly a quarter century. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for a series of articles in the Monitor entitled, "Will Success Spoil the National Parks?" He is also a past Washington editor for Audubon Magazine. This article was taken from a series of three pieces which appeared in the Monitor in May. Reprinted by permission from the Christian Science Monitor, ©1991, The Christian Science Publishing Society. All rights reserved.