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Backpacker Magazine – November/December 2005

National Parks Inc.

Like it or not, national parks are officially in the business of business. Will this focus destroy the soul of a national institution--or save it in these lean times?

by: Eryn Brown


That's especially true in today's computer-driven, budget-slashing era, where parks and businesses appear to have become domestic partners. Budget shortfalls have pushed parks to search for "efficiencies"--cheaper, better ways to do their work. Idealistic Ivy League b-school students descend on the backcountry, senators hold hearings on such sexy subjects as trash-can reduction, and consulting firms like PricewaterhouseCoopers help write concession contracts--essentially helping the NPS sell gorp. Programs with jargony names like Competitive Sourcing Review and Core Operations Analysis eat up more and more of park employees' time and energy.

One effort that's received a lot of attention in recent years is the Business Plan Initiative, which sends graduate students out to parks to analyze operations and financial needs. The program grew out of a situation much like the one Grand Teton faces today: It was 1996, and Yellowstone's superintendent decided to close down the park's Norris Campground and a nearby museum to save $70,000. Visitors were incensed, which led Congress to ask Yellowstone to account for the savings--a task that proved difficult for the park, which couldn't articulate its finances in accountant-friendly terms.

In response, the NPCA, in conjunction with the NPS, developed the business-plan program to ensure superintendents had the knowledge and data they needed to be in a position of power in tough budget times. The idea was that writing business plans, in addition to hopefully luring talented business and policy students to join the cause, would help parks save money and make a rational case for increased funding from Congress. If a Harvard MBA proves that you're strapped, maybe it would be harder for a senator to ignore you.



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