The Bush administration has ordered America’s national parks to show they can function at 80% or less of their operating budgets, and that’s forcing some parks to cut services for visitors as summer approaches.
According to a Knight Ridder Newspapers report, National Park Service officials said the initiative was an effort to cope with the rising costs of salaries, utilities and other management expenses without harming the parks’ “core” missions of protecting the nation’s natural treasures and enabling visitors to enjoy them. The Park Service has more than 270 million visitors annually.
But park officials in the field said the initiative was forcing “gut-wrenching” decisions that visitors would notice. At many parks, volunteers will take on larger roles and there’ll be fewer interpretive ranger programs, the officials said.
President Bush is proposing to cut another $100.5 million from the national parks’ $2.1 billion budget next year. According to a report this month by the Government Accountability Office, the parks have an estimated $5 billion maintenance backlog, and even before the cost-cutting began, many of them had moved from slashing back-office operations to trimming visitor services.
At the same time, the parks are facing rising costs. Payroll, utilities, fleet and other fixed operating costs have increased yearly. Pay raises alone have been about 4% a year. At Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, utility costs increased 46% from 2003 to 2005.
If the financial pressures continue to grow, the parks will have no choice but to cut more services, reduce access for visitors or rely more on private dollars. The Park Service receives as much as $250 million a year from fees, donations and concession royalties.
Twelve parks in the West began the 80% budget process, known as “core operations analysis,” last year. All the national parks are expected to complete it by 2011.