The NPS At 75: Parks Under Siege |
by Robert Cahn, Christian Science Monitor
This article first appeared in 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
* * * * *
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
* * * * *
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.