National parks: window on America

Original Reporting | By Abby Ferla |

Smith says that with a larger budget, one practice he’d like to see the park service do is the very kind of reimagining that Remapping Debate was asking of him. “Those are the kind of exercises that you do when you have enough time and staff, but when your staff is entirely devoted to plugging the leaks in the dike, you don’t have time to do that kind of stuff.” He does add, however, that Jarvis’s “Call to Action” may be a good start. “I was proud to see him do it. It was the first time in a long time that I had seen a vision for the future come from inside the park service.”

Pitcaitley, after making sure that we were not posing a trick question, says that he dreams of seeing unparalleled professionalism and excellence in the parks. “They’ve got to be current, and there’s got to be a direct infusion of content — history, archeology, ethnography — into the interpretive and educational programs. We have to bring scholars into the parks.”

Doing so, he says, would facilitate a greater understanding of collective history and better equip the American public to make informed decisions. Pitcaitley acknowledges that these changes would be expensive, but says that they are necessary, among other things, to foster civic engagement.


Is anyone prepared to pay?

Some increased funding would need to go to cover deferred maintenance. NPCA, which had made 27 recommendations to restore the parks, estimates that it would take about $600 to $800 million more a year just to bring the parks back up to working order.

Remapping Debate: What would you like to see the park service do if it could do anything? What is one large improvement that, regardless of cost, you’d like to see?

Dwight Pitcaithley, a former NPS chief historian: “Wow. Is this a trick question?”

Pitciathley’s estimate is higher: “Danny Galvin [a colleague and retired deputy director of NPS] and I wrote that we thought a healthy budget would be somewhere in the five to six billion dollar range, which is more than double its budget now.” That amount would enable the park service to address its maintenance backlog of nearly $9 billion and “maintain what congress requires it to maintain, and that’s both in landscapes and in historic objects.”

As for the money involved in the task of creating new national parks, no one seems to know how much it would really take, let alone where it might come from. Each park is different, so there is no recipe for determining cost. 

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), for instance, has proposed a new park, which would be comprised of a network of sites across Delaware that includes places related to early Dutch and Swedish colonization and to the events leading up to the signing of the state constitution. He says the cost will be approximately $6 million, which he characterizes as minimal . Some parks, however, can cost over ten times that amount depending on different factors, including how much land must be purchased and the infrastructure that would need to be built.

In general, Carper says, Congress is skeptical of providing additional funding for the purpose of creating new parks.

“There’s a belief that the park service today has more will than wallet, if you will, and that they lack the resources to take care of parks that are already in their tender loving care,” he says. Carper says that he believes that parks are worth paying for, but not if it increased the national debt.

For Pitcaithley and Smith, however, the situation is more pressing, “Our history is, in a sense, our civic glue, and we ignore our history collectively at our own peril,” says Pitcaithely.

A culture of poverty?

Even with immense challenges and huge budget backlogs, the Park Service is not asking for any additional appropriations. Director John Jarvis’s plan instead is to find the money through private donations, and many of its goals have more to do with the actions of individual rangers than it does with systematic change.

This approach has a historical basis, David Barna, NPS chief spokesperson, explains, “In the past, when you’ve put together a five year plan, it’s very quickly tied to appropriations…and it seems to be tied to whatever administration or secretary of the interior is in charge, and when that changes, the plans tend to go away.” And, by making itself relevant to more Americans, he says, the park service hopes to increase its grassroots support, which may someday bring in more funding.

What the plan does do is ask partners and friends to create a $1 billion trust. But Dwight Picathely, the former NPS chief historian, says, “It’s a little out of balance when a federal agency finds it can only do the things Congress requires of it by going to the private sector to fill that gap. I think that there is a role for philanthropy, but there is also a role for proper federal funding, and there’s a gap there.”

It’s difficult to find voices within the Park Service, however, that will repeat this statement. “Oh, many people think that we need more money, but it’s not our job to say that,” said Jeffrey Olson, a spokesperson for the Park Service. He says that part of the reason for this is that it’s not actually legal, because federal employees are not allowed to lobby the government for money. Even if they were permitted, he adds, the Park Service doesn’t have the staffing or resources to lobby for things.

Is the Park Service operating within a self-perpetuating cycle of just making do? Picaithely says the Park Service has cultivated a “culture of poverty,” beginning with budget cuts in the late 1970s, cuts which followed the last big infusion of money from the country’s Bicentennial Campaign. “Parks were required to do more and more with less and less. And, over time, the [Park Service] could not envision a healthy environment for itself or its finances.”

He believes NPS should advocate for itself more. “The American public doesn’t understand how much it takes to manage these places…There is a role for the park service to articulate a vision for itself” and present a price tag for what it would take to do its job at the most professional level.

Advocates within the parks, however, say that it’s just not feasible. “I wouldn’t say it’s a reluctance on the part of the Park Service,” responds Barna, ”but more it’s more of a reality of what’s allowed. The reality is that you are probably never going to see that large amount of money rolling into the park service.” And getting more funding, he says, is probably going to be best achieved through a grassroots effort; if parks can better partner with local communities, he says, these communities will be more likely to pressure their elected officials to give the parks more money.

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