Money woes force agency to hold a ‘bake sale for everything’

By Phil Taylor | 06/14/2016 01:14 PM EDT

Scarce funding threatens the National Park Service’s ability to fulfill its basic mandate, raising difficult questions. To what extent should private donations supplant congressional funding? And what’s to stop parks from becoming overly commercialized and beholden to their sponsors?

Subaru last year gave Grand Teton National Park a new Outback, part of the automaker’s roughly $3 million campaign to support the National Park Service. Under a new NPS proposal, donor names can be displayed on official vehicles.

Subaru last year gave Grand Teton National Park a new Outback, part of the automaker’s roughly $3 million campaign to support the National Park Service. Under a new NPS proposal, donor names can be displayed on official vehicles. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

On the evening of April 5, 2010, Ralph Jackson began firing a shotgun at two strangers watching the sunset at an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Staunton, Va., killing a 27-year-old man and seriously injuring his female friend.

But the National Park Service’s police vehicle was under repair in a mechanic shop, with no backups available. An NPS officer had to respond to the crime in an unmarked sedan, said Phil Francis, who was superintendent of the 469-mile-long parkway running from Great Smoky Mountains to Shenandoah national parks.

"It’s not exactly what you want to be responding in," said Francis, who retired about three years ago. "It has a tremendous impact on morale."


Francis, a 41-year veteran of NPS, blamed insufficient funding from Congress.

Tight budgets had already forced him to cut staff and visitor services, Francis said.

In his eight years as superintendent, the number of permanent maintenance staff tasked with mowing the parkway’s roadside grass, maintaining its highway shoulders and cleaning its bathrooms was cut by half, from roughly 80 to 40, he said.

"We’ll never have enough money to keep the roads in excellent shape like we were accustomed to," Francis said. "I would imagine all of the parks are feeling the pain."

Francis is right, according to national park advocates, current and former NPS officials, and government watchdogs.

As the Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary, scarce funding threatens its ability to fulfil its basic mandate of preserving America’s iconic scenic, historic and recreational sites for the public’s enjoyment.

Congress has been tightening the agency’s purse strings. Annual appropriations, which make up about 88 percent of NPS’s roughly $3 billion budget, declined 8 percent between 2005 and 2014 after adjusting for inflation, according to a report in December from the Government Accountability Office.

As a result, park superintendents are being forced to do more with less — particularly with fewer staff.

visitors vs staff graph
| Photo courtesy of Steinberg.

"What options do superintendents have?" said Denis Galvin, an NPS retiree who served as deputy director during the Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. "They are few. You’ve got to pay the electric bill. You’ve got to pay your suppliers of materials. The only thing a park superintendent can really do is not hire people."

Consider this fact: In 2010, the Park Service had the equivalent of 22,211 full-time employees managing 394 units, including national parks, preserves, recreation areas, historic sites, battlefields and parkways.

By last year, that workforce number had been trimmed to 19,539 — yet the number of park units had risen to 409. Most reductions came from the Park Service’s operations account, it said.

Galvin, who is now on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), blames Congress, too.

In 2001, congressional funding for the Park Service represented 0.12 percent of overall federal spending, Galvin said. By 2014, it had declined to 0.069 percent.

National parks "are a minuscule and declining part of the federal budget," Galvin told a panel of lawmakers in October 2013 during the 16-day government shutdown.

The funding crunch has forced the Park Service to rely more on non-appropriated sources of funding, including entrance fees and corporate donations. Fees, donations and other such funding sources grew 39 percent from 2005 to 2014, even after adjusting for inflation, GAO found.

It’s raised tough questions within the Park Service over the role of philanthropy in keeping parks afloat. To what extent should private donations supplant congressional appropriations? And what’s to stop parks from becoming overly commercialized and beholden to their sponsors?

"We have to hold a bake sale for everything," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said at a national parks conference in Berkeley, Calif., last year. "I didn’t think I’d be jumping into fundraising other than begging for money from Congress when I got this job. But I learned early on that if we wanted to do what we aspired to do in terms of connecting the next generation, I was going to have to tap the private sector to see if they would help us. And they have been."

But philanthropy is no panacea for NPS’s budget woes, warned Director Jonathan Jarvis.

For one, donors aren’t itching to pick up the agency’s $11.9 billion deferred maintenance tab, which includes budget-busting projects like Yosemite National Park’s sewer lines, which on "numerous occasions" have spilled untreated sewage into the watershed of the wild and scenic Merced River, according to NPS budget documents.

Deep-pocketed donors are ponying up to save iconic park buildings; for example, billionaire history buff David Rubenstein gave $7.5 million to shore up the earthquake-shaken Washington Monument and $18.5 million to restore the Lincoln Memorial. But private philanthropists won’t fix the agency’s pothole-strewn roads, its crumbling bridges or its bathrooms, Jarvis said.

"David Rubenstein is not gonna give me money to fix my roads, OK?" Jarvis said. "Nor is anybody else in philanthropy."

That’s the responsibility of American taxpayers, he said.

Yosemite, brought to you by Coke?

The dilemma over park funding caught many Americans’ attention earlier this year, when the agency’s new plans to roll out the welcome mat for donors sparked controversy.

Media reports questioned whether the Park Service would sell park naming rights, raising fears of corporate logos prominently displayed in iconic landscapes.

In a break from NPS’s 2008 philanthropy policy, Jarvis has allowed donors’ names to be posted on park benches and vehicles, and he suspended a ban against taking money or advertising support from alcohol companies in order to enable beer maker Anheuser-Busch InBev to be a "premier partner" in the service’s centennial campaign (Greenwire, April 30, 2015).

appropriations graph
| Photo courtesy of AFGE.

In March, Jarvis released a draft order that codified those policies, promising to give "a new generation of Americans the opportunity to care for their national parks through the 21st century and beyond."

The new order would allow park superintendents to accept gifts of up to $5 million with certification, training and other conditions. It would also allow the NPS director and deputy director to solicit donations directly from private individuals or organizations.

Corporations could temporarily name auditoriums and other rooms in NPS visitor facilities that they helped renovate, so long as the names are approved by the director. Benches, paving bricks and other fixtures could also be adorned with corporate names.

That sparked concern among the public and park advocates over the placement of corporate names and logos.

"We support the order’s intent to allow for additional opportunities to recognize donors, but that should not commercialize the park experience," said Theresa Pierno, CEO of NPCA. "National parks are places where the public’s eyes can take a rest from advertising and enjoy the scenery and history. They need to stay that way."

Jewell said Jarvis is striking the right balance between recognition and preservation.

"There’s no way we’re going to commercialize the parks and say ‘Brought to you by Coca-Cola,’" she told Greenwire. "But to recognize when people do step up as individual philanthropists in a tasteful, appropriate way to a national park is something we do believe we should do."

Yet as philanthropy’s share of the NPS budget grows, so do concerns from park advocates.

While the 2008 order on philanthropy made clear that "donations are not to be used as offsets to appropriated funds or to meet recurring operational requirements," that phrase does not appear in Jarvis’ new order.

Jeffrey Ruch
Jeffrey Ruch. | Photo courtesy of

"National parks for the first time will depend on outside gifts to support their base budgets," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

The risk is that corporate donors will exert too much influence over park managers’ decisions, compromising the service’s mandate to keep parks "unimpaired," Ruch said.

A case in point, Ruch said, was Jarvis’ decision in 2011 to temporarily halt Grand Canyon National Park’s ban on the sale of disposable water bottles after concerns were raised by Coca-Cola, which distributes water under the Dasani brand and had donated more than $13 million to national parks, according to The New York Times. Ruch and other critics say Coca-Cola unduly influenced the decision, an accusation Jarvis has denied.

The Grand Canyon did ban bottled water by early 2012.

"These are investments in a quid pro quo," Ruch said. "We are concerned that influence peddling will soon become a major recreational activity in our national parks."

Jarvis’ order contains provisions intended to prevent that.

When determining whether to accept or decline a gift, Park Service employees must verify that it is not designed to "influence the exercise of any NPS or Departmental regulatory or other authority" and that "the donor will not obtain or appear to obtain special treatment in dealing with the NPS," the draft order says.

‘It’s a zero-sum game’

When it comes to federal funding, it’s not that Congress doesn’t want to help.

The problem, according to Rick Healy, a former Democratic aide on the House Appropriations Committee, is that Congress never has enough money to start with. With a finite spending cap, a major boost in park funding would require siphoning cash from other critical government programs like fighting wildfires or funding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said.

"It’s a zero-sum game," said Healy, who is now with the firm McDermott Will & Emery LLP.

Competition for discretionary funding is fierce, Healy said.

The panel he worked on, the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, must compete against 11 other subcommittees for a piece of the non-defense discretionary spending pie, which last year was set at $518 billion.

Once the panel receives its slice — last year it was $32.159 billion — it must be shared among all the other Interior Department, Forest Service and U.S. EPA "must-do’s" like wildfires, American Indian programs and money for rural counties, Healy noted.

"I don’t want to take care of my friends at the National Park Service if it means I hurt my friends at the Forest Service, BLM or Fish and Wildlife Service," Healy said. "We could give the National Park Service more money, but we need to deal with budgeting holistically."

For too long, Congress has tried to balance the federal budget by limiting non-defense discretionary spending, Healy argued.

Galvin said the solution is to rein in long-term entitlement costs like Medicare while raising some new tax revenues. That would potentially free up more money for parks.

NPS notched a minor victory last October when Congress struck a two-year, bipartisan budget deal that lifted the so-called sequester cuts and freed up $80 billion in additional discretionary spending (E&E Daily, Oct. 30, 2015).

It gave Healy’s panel $1.7 billion in additional funding to divvy up, much of which trickled down to NPS.

construction appropriations graph
| Photo courtesy of the city of Lakewood, Colo.

Congress’ fiscal 2016 spending package provided $2.9 billion for NPS — an increase of $237 million above the 2015 enacted level, with major boosts for park operations and construction to chip away at the agency’s maintenance backlog.

But Congress still has some catch-up to do, Galvin said.

While overall NPS funding grew 19 percent from 2001 to 2014, it lagged behind the growth in the consumer price index, at 34 percent, and the cost of a full-time Park Service employee, 52 percent, over that same time frame, Galvin said.

Average salaries at NPS rose from $39,797 to $57,645 over that period, according to Office of Personnel Management data provided by the Partnership for Public Service. That’s actually slower growth than the salaries of other federal workers.

That puts major stress on the NPS budget, more than three-fourths of which is devoted to personnel costs, Galvin said. It means superintendents must hire fewer seasonal employees — like lifeguards at Cape Cod National Seashore — or leave permanent positions vacant, he said.

Jim Northup, superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, said budgets got so tight a decade ago that he had to consolidate his three maintenance crews — each consisting of road workers, plumbers and carpenters — into one. With 105 miles of Skyline Drive, 70 overlooks, two major lodges, four campgrounds, 27 different water systems, four wastewater treatment plants and a vehicle fleet to maintain, the crew is stretched thin, he said.

"Our budgets have been flat for over a decade, and the purchasing power associated with that base appropriation has eroded over the years," Northup said.

The park, which runs on a $12 million base budget from Congress, has become increasingly dependent on entrance and recreation fees, which raise roughly $6 million annually, Northup said. The park recently decided to raise entrance fees from $15 to $25.

‘Let’s close the national parks’

The Park Service has been in a similar predicament before.

In the 1950s, parks were ill-prepared to accommodate the flood of new visitors that followed World War II. A 1953 article in Harper’s Magazine warned that parks were becoming plagued by dilapidated roads, campgrounds and other facilities.

It carried a provocative headline: "Let’s close the national parks."

Bernard DeVoto
Bernard DeVoto | Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

"The author, Bernard DeVoto, hoped the shock of suggesting that Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon should be shut down until they were worthy of visitors would push Congress to properly fund the nation’s crown jewels," Jewell said at a speech in April at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. "That could have been the end of the story, the tombstone reading: ‘Here lies the national parks. Loved to death.’"

Instead, it spurred a massive $1 billion government investment in park infrastructure known as Mission 66. Jewell said it inspired her generation, the baby boomers, "to love and visit and support the great outdoors."

"You don’t need to look too hard to see the parallels to today," Jewell said. "Budget crunches have left our national parks and public lands understaffed and struggling to keep up with day-to-day operations."

Critics say Congress brought today’s funding dilemma upon itself by creating too many parks.

"Congress would rather create new parks or acquire more land than fund mundane maintenance projects," said a report released in February by the Property and Environment Research Center, a free-market think tank in Bozeman, Mont. "As one former congressman put it, ‘It’s not very sexy to fix a sewer system or maintain a trail. You don’t get headlines for that.’"

Since 2000, 26 new park units have been added to the National Park System, the report noted. But discretionary appropriations remained essentially flat.

"With more parks but little or no additional funding, our national parks are stretched thin," it said.

In 2013, then-Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) issued a report calling for a moratorium on new parks until a plan is in place to halt the $256 million in annual growth of the deferred maintenance backlog. No such plan has emerged.

"No one would purchase a new car while ignoring a leaking ceiling or broken pipes in their own home, but that is essentially what Washington is doing with our national parks," Coburn’s report says.

But park advocates have called the Coburn report shortsighted.

Newly designated parks — such as the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio or the César E. Chávez National Monument in California — are typically small and inexpensive to operate compared with larger, more popular parks, advocates said.

The 15 park units that have been designated since 2010 that require new funding had a combined annual budget this year of $9 million, according to John Garder, a budget specialist at the National Parks Conservation Association. The amount of additional money NPS determined it needed in 2015 just to keep the deferred maintenance backlog from rising was $347 million — 39 times the cost to run the new parks, Garder said.

"They’re million-dollar parks," Galvin said of the newly designated units. A moratorium on new designations would be "like finding a nickel when you’re looking for a dollar."

The 12 largest park units by budget, he said, were all established before 1972.

Donors to the rescue?

Donors are taking on an expanded role in park funding.

Consider the Pullman National Monument in Chicago, which President Obama designated in 2015 to commemorate the industrial town’s role in the nation’s labor and civil rights movements. The National Park Foundation, the agency’s congressionally chartered fundraising arm, last year announced it had raised $8 million in private capital to establish a visitor center, educational and experiential exhibits, and programming in the monument’s Administration Clock Tower Building.

Earlier this year, NPF said it plans to raise $350 million to commemorate the Park Service centennial, marking the largest fundraising effort in the foundation’s history.

donation box
A donation box in Grand Teton National Park’s visitor center shows private contributions from visitors across the United States and world. | Photo by Phil Taylor.

It has already raised more than $200 million through gifts from individuals, foundations, corporations and other donors during the campaign’s "quiet phase," which began in October 2013. The campaign will continue through September 2018.

It will fund tangible projects like electric vehicle charging stations, the purchase of private inholdings, refurbishing the Lincoln Memorial and improving trail access.

But much of the money will be spent on connecting a younger and more diverse generation of visitors to national parks, said NPF President Will Shafroth. The aim is to expand the agency’s constituency of supporters.

"If you look at the current visitor base, they tend to be older and whiter — they’ve been supporters for a long time," he said. "They’re not as diverse as they need to be. This is an attempt to make sure we’re creating the future we want for the parks."

Donations to parks have soared in the years leading to the centennial.

They hovered around $37 million annually between 2007 and 2013 but shot up to $95 million in 2014 and $159 million in 2015. NPS anticipates receiving $170 million this fiscal year.

But Shafroth said private philanthropy will never replace the core NPS funding provided by Congress.

There’s a "reasonable chance" that NPF will raise $100 million this year and that other friends groups will raise an additional $150 million, he said.

"Let’s just say we got to $250 million or $300 million. It’s still 10 percent of what the federal government provides for parks," he said. "The federal government will continue to provide the lion’s share."

Yet the growing role of philanthropy cannot be ignored, said Galvin.

The Grand Teton National Park Foundation has raised $13 million — to be matched by $3 million in NPS funds — to build trails, bridges and interpretive facilities around Jenny Lake, a project that aims to create "safer pathways for recreation."

In northern Maine, the Elliotsville Plantation Inc., a private foundation, is proposing to donate about 87,500 acres of land along the east branch of the Penobscot River to be designated as a new national monument. The gift would come with a $40 million private endowment to support the national park site, said NPCA, which is backing the proposal.

Yet less glamorous park projects — roads, sewage and other infrastructure — will continue to fall by the wayside, Galvin warned.

"Nobody wants to cut the ribbon of the sewage treatment plant," he said.

Jarvis is optimistic that Congress will intervene — though he signaled it might take a crisis.

"If the water line at the Grand Canyon fails, there is no water on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. OK?" he said. "That means you can’t have a hotel, you can’t have visitors. I don’t have the money to fix it. So at some point, Congress is going to have to step up to this responsibility and fund the Park Service appropriately to deal with the backlog."

Reporters Emily Yehle and Corbin Hiar contributed.