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Backpacker Magazine – 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

Such small tweaks can deliver results. Findings from Shenandoah's two business plans convinced park managers to hire a permanent volunteer coordinator - who increased volunteer work-hours in the park 29 percent in fiscal year 2004, getting for free the equivalent of 29.2 full-time workers. Shenandoah also streamlined waste management. Reducing the number of trash cans at Skyline Drive's scenic overlooks from 75 to 2 saves $30,000 a year on garbage pickups, says park spokesperson Karen Beck Herzog, who adds that littering has not increased as a result. Cutting back on maintenance supervision saved park managers at the Natchez Trace Parkway around $200,000 a year (about 5 percent of costs) - again with no ill effects, according to park sources. Great Smoky Mountains has saved around $300,000 annually by making changes to its auto fleet, economizing on utilities, and pursuing other cost-reducing strategies.

While such savings are promising news - especially in this climate of tight park budgets - it's surprisingly tough to measure the big-picture impact on the NPS bottom line. "It's hard for me to put a dollar figure on it," says Phil Voorhees, a vice president at the NPCA who helped create the Business Plan Initiative. (One NPS staffer offered a "very conservative" estimate that the entire initiative has saved more than $5 million.) Business plans have been useful exercises for park staff, helping them fine-tune operations here and there, and letting them gather data that helps in future cost-cutting and fundraising pursuits. But beyond that, there are as many questions as answers.

It will also be a few years before concessions reform, another area of focus, yields a significant increase in revenue flowing to parks. Thanks to 1998 legislation, many contracts will be rewritten over the next 10 years or so, sending a larger percentage of earnings into the parks themselves. Unfortunately, these contracts are very complicated, so it's taking a long time to get the new, more advantageous deals worked out, and improvements to the bottom line are slow to develop. Between 2000 and 2004, Great Smoky Mountains received only a 3 percent increase in its share of concessions profits; its payout grew from $49,173 to $50,864.

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