U.S. National Parks Told to Quietly Cut Services

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
March 19, 2004

Millions of Americans will flock to the country's national parks this summer. Dazzled by nature and history, will they notice the missing signs, crumbling roads, or disappearance of park rangers?

Facing what some people warn is a "crippling" budget shortfall, many national park superintendents are being asked to consider cutting their ranger staffs, services, and visitor center hours—and possibly even closing down completely on certain days.

Several advocacy groups now charge that the entire National Park System is menaced by a hidden crisis, and that Park Service officials are trying to cover it up.

"Make no mistake about it. There is a chill over the National Park Service today," said Denny Huffman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees in Washington, D.C.

The United States' 388 national parks contain more than 18,000 permanent structures, 8,000 miles (12,900 kilometers) of roads, 1,800 bridges and tunnels, 4,400 housing units, 700 water and wastewater systems, 400 dams, and 200 solid-waste operations.

The Park Service values these assets at more than 35 billion U.S. dollars, but for years it has been warning that it has not been able to keep up with the cost of looking after them. The estimated "deferred maintenance backlog" of these facilities is 5 billion dollars, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported to the U.S. Congress last year.

Endangered Rangers

The operating budget for the parks actually increased to 1.61 billion dollars in 2004 from 1.56 billion dollars in 2003. But the increase has been absorbed by rising expenses, Park Service officials say.

Now cuts have to be made.

"We're concerned that the National Park Service is quietly asking superintendents to make cuts in summer operations, such as lifeguards on beaches and closing visitor centers on peak days, weekends, and holidays," Huffman said.

In a new report called "Endangered Rangers," the National Parks Conservation Association, a Washington-based parks watchdog group, said U.S. national parks are underfunded by as much as 600 million dollars a year. It claims the parks are getting just two-thirds of the funding they need, leading to severe staffing shortages and deteriorating park facilities.

In parks across the country, public education programs have been reduced or eliminated, the report says. Historic buildings are allowed to deteriorate, sometimes until ceilings collapse. Priceless museum collections are piled up in damp basements. Wildlife and artifacts are poached.

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