U.S. National Parks Told to Quietly Cut Services

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The report warns that virtually every park—from Maine's Acadia to Alaska's Denali—will have to shed seasonal jobs.

"America's national park rangers have become an endangered species," said the association's president, Thomas Kiernan.

"Service Level Adjustments"

Some critics charge that the National Park Service is purposely misleading the public and media about the cuts.

On Wednesday, a group of former park officials released an internal National Park Service memo distributed last month to park superintendents in the Northeast Region.

A copy of the memo, with the sender's name blanked out, is published on the Web site of the Campaign to Protect America's Lands. The memo states that "the majority of Northeast Region Parks are beginning this fiscal year with fewer operating dollars" than in 2003. Additionally, it says, staff costs and rising fixed costs have further eroded operating dollars.

"It is now time … to determine what actually has to happen to stay within the funds you have been allocated," the memo said.

The memo suggested possible cuts—"just examples"—that superintendents could consider:

• "Close the visitor center on all federal holidays."
• "Eliminate life guard services at 1 of the park's 3 guarded beaches."
• "Eliminate all guided ranger tours."
• "Let the manicured grasslands grow all summer."
• "Turn 1 of our 4 campgrounds over to a concession permittee."
• "Close the park every Sunday and Monday."
• "Close the visitor center for the months of November, January & February."

The e-mail memo urges park superintendents not to directly use the phrase "this is a cut" in press releases about such service reductions. "We all agreed to use the terminology of 'service level adjustment' due to fiscal constraints as a means of describing what actions we are taking," the memo said.

In a telephone interview David Barna, a spokesperson for the National Park Service, said there is "no reason to think the memo was not authentic." The memo was sent on February 20 by Chrysandra Walter, the deputy director of the Park Service's Northeast Region division.

The alliance of advocacy groups that disclosed the memo—the Coalition of Concerned National Park Retirees, the Association of National Park Rangers, and the Campaign to Protect America's Lands—also criticized the National Park Service for firing U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa C. Chambers in December of last year after she complained publicly about budget shortfalls.

"There's now a culture of fear in the Park Service," said Laurel Angell of the Campaign to Protect America's Lands. "Everyone is afraid to disclose budget cuts."

Shifting Priorities

The Park Service's Barna dismissed the charge that his agency is hiding program cuts from the public. He said superintendents are simply asked to inform main offices if they are closing down any major services.

"We don't want any surprises," he said. "We don't want someone to go on television, locking the front gate to the park and saying, 'We're out of money, we're closed.'"

Barna agreed that the National Park Service is now operating "on the edge," and that service cutbacks may happen. "Certainly we recognize that our operating budgets are tight," he said.

In recent years the agency has had to absorb costs that were out of its control, Barna says. Last year, it spent 50 million dollars on fighting forest fires and 150 million dollars on recovering from Hurricane Isabel.

Homeland security is also expensive. Each change in the color-coded U.S. Homeland Security Advisory System from yellow to orange costs the National Park Service a million dollars a month, as, for example, additional rangers are brought in to protect national landmarks.

"We'd be remiss in our duties if we didn't protect these monuments," Barna said. "If something were to happen to the Lincoln Memorial while we were not watching it, that would be devastating. Our priorities have absolutely shifted."

For more national-parks news stories, please scroll down.

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