Some 88 years ago, Congress authorized the creation of the National Park Service.
The preamble of the Organic Act of 1916 said the intent of the newly formed agency would be "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
More than 50 years later, Edward Abbey would declare this mission a "contradictory mandate." After all, the need to "provide for the enjoyment" of the people with access roads and facilities clearly competes with the dissenting need to leave the park resources "unimpaired" for future generations, if the term unimpaired is interpreted in the strictest sense of the word.
What Ed Abbey didn't foresee when he yanked those road survey stakes from the high Utah desert, and what his eventual musings in Desert Solitaire failed to conceive, was the ultimate reconciliation of these two seemingly polar mandates of the National Park Service nearly a century after they were originally written.
Systemwide, the national parks
Today, the real irony sets in when we discuss an estimated $4.6 billion backlog of maintenance needs at our parks - accruing costs from years of use and over-use of the facilities that the Park Service provides and administers for our enjoyment.
Since Abbey's well-known critique of the agency, the focal point of the debate for conservationists has shifted profoundly. Today, conservation groups are not trying to prevent the paving of our parks, but rather, they are trying to maintain park facilities so that repair efforts keep pace with the ever-increasing levels of degeneration from increased use.
The fury of political discourse, with charges and counter-charges, has since enveloped the issue of the maintenance backlog, hindering the public's ability to understand what is happening to our most cherished natural, cultural and historical assets: the units in the National Park System.
Conservationists predict gloom and doom saying that the Bush administration is using "creative accounting" to deceive us about the condition of our parks (1). Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton claims, "Never before have our parks received so much care"(2).
Who ought we to believe? Are things peachy or in utter turmoil? Just what is being done to restore the health of our parks? What is being done for the parks here in the Rocky Mountains?
Our continued investment in these areas that form our backyard, our memories, and for many of us, our economic lifeblood, is of salient concern for all citizens of the Rocky Mountain West.
The Colorado College State of the Rockies Project has begun an initial inquiry into these questions using public-use statistics and data obtained by Freedom of Information Act request that for the first time ever details the levels of deferred maintenance at each park unit in the country for seven of the principal assets of the parks: buildings, campgrounds, housing, trails, unpaved roads, waste-water systems, and water systems.
The recently released report "Deferred Maintenance and the Health of our National Parks: A Mid-term Report Card" (available at www.coloradocollege.edu/stateoftherockies) looks at this newly quantified portion of the maintenance backlog and planned projects to alleviate it by 2009 for the U.S., regions, and by park here in the Rocky Mountains (the states of AZ, CO, ID, MT, NM, NV, UT, and WY).
The report is an initial attempt to sort out the highly charged issue of the "maintenance backlog" that bedevils our parks and those who pay for and manage them. Final grades for each park unit in the Rocky Mountains will be a part of this year's 2005 State of the Rockies Report Card to be released at the annual State of the Rockies Conference, April 5-7.
Data from the mid-term report supports the principal claim made by Bush administration officials. Systemwide, the national parks are receiving more funding per visitor, per acre and per employee than they have before.
With a little more context though, the picture looks quite different. This claim could be made nearly every fiscal year since 1994. Moreover, average annual growth in funding per visitor, per acre, and per employee has declined in recent years for many park regions, including the Rocky Mountain Region.
Here in the Rockies, the total number of NPS employees grew by an average of about 91 new employees during the period from 1994-2001. Since then, growth in new employees for the region averages only 14 new hires annually. Similarly, average annual growth in appropriations per acre has dropped from 1.9 percent during the Clinton-era to only 0.5 percent from fiscal year 2001 to fiscal year 2005.
One claim clearly will not hold however. Candidate George W. Bush stated in October 2000 that, if elected, he would devote "$5 billion to eliminate the backlog in maintenance and improvements in our national parks" (3).
Our analysis shows that even the quantified portion of the backlog, which currently does not include cultural and natural resource maintenance needs, will not be close to eliminated by the time President Bush leaves office.
Here in the Rockies, planned funding will only address about 16 percent of the $773 million measure in deferred maintenance needs from repair and rehabilitation projects through 2009. Additional funding from the fee-demonstration program and line-item construction projects may help to alleviate about half of the maintenance backlog here in the Rockies over that same time span.
Here in the Rockies,
Infuriated, as I'm sure you all are, I recommend that you promptly contact the superintendents at each park you plan to visit and without haste, begin a steady stream of letters to your senators to fix this problem. …
Or maybe there isn't a problem after all. Maybe the indictors of funding per acre, per visitor, and per employee aren't telling indicators of park "health." Maybe, we ought to think about managing the maintenance backlog to an acceptable level, rather than pushing to eliminate it.
If you listen to the political rhetoric long enough, you might even find yourself tirelessly fighting all the while to disprove it. You might just be missing the real issues at hand in shaping the future health of our parks.
Sweeping change in how the National Park Service is conducting business is having profound effects, especially here in the Rocky Mountains. Here's a brief look at a few of the changes.
It's no secret that a large portion of the park-base funding increases during this administration have gone to counter-terrorism efforts. Most of these funds have gone to places like the National Capital region parks in Washington D.C. and to places like Independence Hall and the Statue of Liberty, national assets we often forget about here in the Rockies.
Still, other funds are coming into this region, most notably to border parks like Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument along the Mexican border and Glacier National Park along the Canadian border for increased border patrol and protection.
While we all will agree that protecting our national heritage from terrorist attacks is an important action requiring adequate funding, we ought to think carefully about whether this funding should come from within the Park Service where it inevitably competes dollar for dollar with other park needs.
Consider that Clinton-era base increases for environmental monitoring, restoration and preservation have dropped from about 33 percent of all increased funds to roughly 4 percent of increases in recent years, while counter-terrorism increases topped out at 44 percent of all park-based increases during FY 2003. (NPS Budget Justifications)
Efficient Planning and Spending
The Park Service's new Facility Management Software System (FMSS) has enabled the agency to systematically inventory physical facility assets and apply industry standards for preventative maintenance, cyclical maintenance, replacement, and priority of improvement.
Cost-effective decisions that utilize an asset priority index are in place at every park unit, enabling park planners to efficiently address current and future maintenance needs. For the first time ever, when Park Service officials consider the decision to build a new visitor center or other facility, they are considering the full costs of operating and maintaining that facility in perpetuity.
Here in the Rockies, the advent of this system has meant everything from Yellowstone National Park coming into compliance with its EPA water quality standards, to the rehabilitation of the Many Glacier Hotel at Glacier National Park.
As mentioned earlier, the Park Service's current estimate of deferred maintenance levels does not take into account cultural resources. Unlike the physical facilities, such as wastewater systems that have industry standards for determining their current replacement value and lifecycle, cultural resources have no clearly defined means for estimating the costs to fix or replace them.
Ask any archaeologist the value of an intact and treasured one-of-a-kind glimpse into early American settlement and his or her response will be simply – priceless. Likewise, each site has a compelling urgency for preservation and restoration that hardly compares to a leaky visitor center roof.
So the Park Service has picked the low-hanging fruit first in attempting to quantify and fix physical facility deferred maintenance. The agency is currently exploring ways to marry information about inventoried archaeological resources into a cost-effective rehabilitation plan, but in the mean time, cultural resources may be left waiting in the wing.
Consider these findings:
• In FY 2004 the cultural resources cyclical maintenance program was eliminated and joined with the facilities cyclical program, leaving cultural resource preservation largely in the hands of facilities personnel rather than with trained preservationists; $10.415 million earmarked for cultural resource cyclical maintenance can now be diverted to other priority maintenance needs.
• The goal to increase the number of archaeological sites inventoried by 22 percent since FY 1999 was not met, largely because sites had been destroyed during that time period.
Here in the Rockies, Canyonlands National Park, renowned for its archaeological resources, has never conducted a full inventory to identify all of them.
In reality, the outlook for our national parks is neither rosy nor bleak. The initial efforts to adequately manage the deferred maintenance problems have made significant headway in enabling the Park Service to better understand and respond to ongoing impairment of their assets.
Still there are many challenges and changes that the new efforts have brought forth. An important and necessary immediate step to improving the health of our national parks is to begin inventorying and assessing cultural resource assets so that they may adequately compete for funding with physical assets.
Patrick Holmes is program coordinator for the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project in Colorado Springs, CO. Each year the project provides an annual State of the Rockies Report Card and Conference to inspire dialogue about the issues affecting the Rocky Mountain West. www.coloradocollege.edu/stateoftherockies
(1) Berman, Dan. "National Parks: Norton Defends Bush Admin's Stewardship of NPS," Greenwire Vol. 10 No. 9. 9 July 2004.
(2) Martin, Tom. "Statement by Tom Martin, Executive VP, National Parks Conservation Association on Secretary Norton's Report on the National Park System." U.S. Newswire. 8 July 2004.
(3) Bush, George W. "I will set high standards" USA TODAY. McLean, Va. 27 Oct 2000: A26.