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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?

Even large documented savings aren’t necessarily all they appear to be. Great Smoky’s $300,000 is “not very big” in a budget of $16.6 million, says park spokesperson Bob Miller. On July 14, parks comptroller Bruce Sheaffer testified before the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks that the Southeastern Archaeological Center, which coordinates archaeological projects for parks in the Southeast Region, was saving $850,000 annually thanks to an outsourcing review (which in the end handed none of the center’s jobs over to private contractors). But the center’s director, John Ehrenhard, disputes that figure. “We spend more money justifying what happens here than we ever spend on the work,” he says, adding that the entire exercise was “ludicrous…We’re doing the same work we did before. It’s just a little harder than it used to be. And it costs more.” (On Ehrenhard’s recommendation, BACKPACKER called the NPS office in Denver to obtain an itemized account of the $850,000 savings, but our calls were never returned. A park service spokesperson from the Washington office also could not itemize the total savings, but did point to two positions left unfilled and shifted resources at the center.)

Proponents of business-practice reform acknowledge the limitations of what they’re trying to do. These analyses can only help so much until funding levels catch up with federally mandated wage hikes and mushrooming maintenance costs. Bob Krumenaker, superintendent of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin and a big fan of the Business Plan Initiative, has saved thousands by trading his SUV for a pickup and reducing the number of boats the park operates, among other things. (He doesn’t know how much he’s saved overall: “Figuring out that number is a luxury we’ve never had time for,” he says.) Still, Krumenaker may have to limit public access to his parks’ nine historic lighthouses, because at current budget levels “we’re barely able to keep roofs on them and keep them standing.” The park’s business plan confirmed that its $2.5 million operational budget was underfunded by 58 percent.

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