Hearings and Business Meetings

SD-366 Energy Committee Hearing Room 02:30 PM

Mr. Robert Arnberger

Coalition of National Park Service Retirees

 

 

Statement of

 

ROBERT ARNBERGER

 

On behalf of the

 

COALITION OF NATIONAL PARK SERVICE RETIREES

 

Submitted for the Record of the

 

SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS

COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES

U. S. SENATE

 

For the

 

Hearing to Review the National Park Service’s Funding Needs

For Administration and Management of the National Park System

 

Held

 

May 10, 2005

 

 

 

 

 


 

 


Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to appear before this subcommittee which is examining the management and operational capacity of the National Park Service.  I am Robert Arnberger, recently retired from the National Park Service in August, 2003.  Before my retirement I dedicated 34 years to the protection of our national park system working my way up the ladder from seasonal park ranger, to park historian and interpreter, to protection ranger, Chief Ranger, to Superintendent and finally to Regional Director.  My last assignment as a Superintendent was at Grand Canyon National Park managing one of our nation’s greatest “crown jewels” from 1994-2000.  My last assignment, from which I retired, was the Alaska Regional Director in charge of over 54 million acres of our nation’s wildest land.  I spent virtually my entire career in the field familiar with all aspects of operations that are required to carry out the National Park mission.

 

Today, I represent The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, former employees who have joined together in a non-partisan group to bring their views and expertise to the table in the national endeavor to protect our National Park System.  Many of the Coalition’s 390 members were senior leaders who received awards for outstanding stewardship of America’s top natural and cultural resources and represent more than 12,000 years of cumulative experience in managing our nation’s park system.

 

I congratulate you on the focus and scope of today’s hearing.  America’s national park system needs more champions like yourself, and others, because without champions the system of parks as we have known them will become an unfortunate footnote of our nation’s history, rather than a glowing example for the nation’s future.  Despite the fact that the Congress has established strong standards of care for the units of the national park system, financial and political support from successive congresses and Democratic and Republican Administrations have almost never provided the necessary resources so that the National Park Service can indeed “….conserve [the resources] and 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.”  One former senior manager of the Park Service in the Coalition summed up the situation this way:  “The headlines are always the same”.  The deferred maintenance backlog continues to grow and today’s park operational deficits become tomorrow’s backlog.  Looking in the crystal ball of the near future considering this nation’s growing deficit, the war on terror, and diminishing federal budgets suggests that our efforts to properly care for our national heritage found in the parks will never catch up to the needs.  The national park system does not suffer alone in trying to carry out the grand democratic ideals of our nation’s way of life under increasingly difficult circumstances.  Just balancing the federal budget is daunting, much less coping with the myriad other problems of leading and managing our democracy.  Since champions of the park idea are found throughout our Congress and our society we believe that there is still an opportunity to continue the legacy of American parks and assure their rightful place in our American culture.

 

The Coalition recognizes some of the gains over the years to the National Park Service budget but the needs have far outstripped the gains and there is still much to do.  The headlines repeat themselves about deferred maintenance needs and operational shortfalls at parks all across the country.  Professional and objective reports that document the need for more law enforcement rangers languish without effective action.  Budget deficits have created severe staff shortages at all levels which have reduced abilities of parks to provide for the enjoyment of park visitors, to protect them during their visits, assure the roads, restrooms, sewer and water systems meet standards, basic science and historic preservation requirements are carried out.  A year ago the Coalition released the findings of a new national survey based in part on information from 12 representative U.S. national parks.  The Coalition report found the following: budgets were down at eight of the 12 parks; employee levels were reduced at all of the parks; six of the 12 parks already had or would cut visitor center hours;  all six of the surveyed historic parks would allow key resources to further deteriorate without needed maintenance; nine of the 12 parks had made cuts that would result in reduced experience for visitors; and, most surprisingly, some parks were even cutting vital law enforcement positions needed to protect visitors and natural and cultural resources – even though NPS policy specifies “no net loss” in these positions.  In summary, the Coalition’s research, speaking directly with park managers, found that many parks were leaving permanent jobs unfilled, reducing the hiring of needed seasonal employees, shortening visitor seasons, curtailing visitor center hours, eliminating interpretive programs, and cutting back on resource protection patrols.  Frankly, they have no other options.  Last year the Administration called these “service-level reductions” to lighten the blow of what they really are –they are cuts, pure and simple.

 

Field operations have been cut to the bone and there is no room for continued cuts.  Indeed, maintaining the status quo for “deferred opportunities in the future” is not sufficient either because the status quo is already below the standard required to carry out core mission responsibilities.  I talked to one field superintendent two weeks ago who indicated 92% of his budget was in fixed costs.  Each year it costs more to run our parks and those increases are never really covered.  A senior division chief in one of our largest eastern parks reflects what really happens: “year after year Congress authorizes mandatory pay increases to federal employees without fully funding them.  In FY 04, we received a 4.1 % pay increase with less than a 1 % park budget increase.  As managers, we groan when we see proposed salary increases because we know it will diminish our ability to fulfill our mission—and at the same time we are happy for our staff who work so hard”.  Additionally, a factor sometimes forgotten relates to the conversion of the federal retirement system from Civil Service to FERS.  This same division chief relates, “With the federal match of retirement accounts, overhead for employees has skyrocketed from about 11 % to close to 50 % in some cases and as Civil Service employees retire replaced by FERS employees the salary overhead for parks increase.  It seems as if the budget increases we do get do not accommodate this easily predictable demographic trend.”  The parks do not face these issues alone.  The Washington Office and Regional Offices face similar problems.  I managed a Regional Office and can accurately say that these offices provide desperately needed technical and staff assistance to all the parks.  Yet, the operational budgets that get to the parks are impacted by the lack of funding at all levels and this division chief relates, “every year the operational budgets are hit by assessments – from Congress and the Administration.  In FY 04 we incurred an across-the board reduction; a further .646 % Department of Interior reduction; a .59% reduction called for in the Omnibus Bill; a uniform assessment; an assessment for computer software licensing; and a 2% assessment from our Regional Office to help them help us”.

 

The National Park Service is caught in a self-perpetuating downward spiral that devalues the very purposes why these places have been determined to be the most significant sites of our nation’s natural and cultural heritage and set aside in a national park system of global pre-eminence.  The rush to “privatize and outsource” to commercial interests devalues the importance of the “people’s parks” and has wasted valuable time and money to evaluate what park management responsibilities can compete with the private sector.  This has not only devalued the importance of these national landscapes and historic shrines as just another “commercial enterprise” but has sent a similar message to stressed, under-funded and underappreciated professional staffs who do jobs no one else in this country can do.  The reduced buying-power of budgets that actually reach the parks creates staff attrition and inability to carry out the National Park Service core mission.  This attrition forces greater reliance by parks on additional private sources such as increasing numbers of volunteers, interns, foundations, donations and friends groups being counted upon to carry out the basic functions of managing a national park, rather than providing a “margin of excellence” as they used to do.  While we celebrate and congratulate the spirit of voluntarism, friends groups, and foundations, the inability of the federal government to carry out its core responsibilities has blurred the bright funding line that must exist between those responsibilities of the government and those of an assisting partner.  This places a heavy burden upon the philanthropic organizations seeking funds for parks who must answer queries about why the government is unable to adequately fund our parks and questioning the true commitment of this nation to adequately provide for its national park system.  And the sad truth is that all of those outside sources combined are actually not filling the gap in the basic functions.  Even with all that generosity of voluntarism and philanthropy, the system is still falling behind. 

 

Rather than focus on failures and fault—though there is much fault to spread around in both political parties and numerous Administrations—the Coalition believes we should celebrate the success of the national park system to present day—and there is much success to be shared amongst us all.  Successive generations of Americans, speaking through their elected representatives, have decided that these places are special and merit the most special protection in perpetuity.  Let us celebrate this American optimism found in our national park system with a bold and renewed commitment to better care for our national legacy.  The solutions to solving the problems are not exclusively based in budget health and increased funds, but also in developing a renewed bipartisan political commitment to solving long term problems with something more than short-term solutions.  We are in this “for the duration” and we must develop better long-term support systems that are consistent in growing the park system forward responding to this need.

 

The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees has offered suggestions about how we might end this downward spiral, based upon a report released in September 2004 titled, “A Call To Action: Saving Our National Park System”, a copy of which we provide to the Committee to be submitted to the formal hearing record.

  • There is an annual shortfall of approximately $600 million required to meet operational needs in the National Park Service.  A recurring budget increase will restore Service ranger protection and education programs, fill lapsed positions throughout the Service, provide facility managers with funds required to care for federal assets, and continue the recent programmatic gains in science and resources management.  The budget hemorrhage must be halted because “today’s deficits are tomorrow’s backlog”.
  • It is time to invigorate a national dialog to explore the issue of governance of our national park system to determine how our government can best carry out its role, on behalf of the people, to preserve our system of national parks and to pass them on unimpaired to future generations.  It is time to end the repetition of headlines about park deficits, deferred maintenance, and reduced visitor services.  We recommend convening a non-partisan National Parks Blue Ribbon Commission dedicated to restoring the values of our national park system by evaluating the mission and roles of a national system of parks for the 21st century, and deriving from that the true budget and personnel needs and the appropriate governance organizational models.  The Commission would report to Congress, the President and the American public.  Let this effort create a bold, multi-year “Keeping the Promises” plan focused upon  the future of our park system within the broader national and international context of environmental management, the retirement of deferred projects, and the restoration of operational budgets returning our park system to greatness by the Centennial Anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016.

 

Working with all the champions of our national park system, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees stands ready to continue the work we carried out as respected career professionals on into our retired life -  to assure our parks are preserved and enjoyed by our citizens leaving a legacy to be proud of for the generations yet to come.