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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?

Apostle Islands isn’t alone. Funding shortfalls have left thousands of jobs unfilled. According to the 2004 NPCA report “Endangered Rangers,” many programs have been sharply cut, including anti-poaching efforts and museum curation at Glacier National Park, and educational tours and the monitoring of petroglyphs at Death Valley. “What we’re doing with management is critical – but it only answers part of the problem,” says the NCPA’s Voorhees. “The budget crisis is too aggressive.”

But the fundamental appropriations problem is unlikely to disappear. As the Bush administration slashes taxes and continues to spend in the Middle East, NPS staffers express little hope that new money will come pouring in. If anything, they say outright that it won’t. “We’re talking about looking a little bit more at how we set priorities and live within our means,” says Steve Martin, the NPS deputy director overseeing operations.

There’s no lack of examples of the ways funding shortfalls hurt the parks, but evidence-backed critiques of programs like the Business Plan Initiative and concessions reform are harder to find. Many of the more controversial ideas being bandied about – such as increasing the role for outside business, and widespread outsourcing of NPS jobs – haven’t yet come to fruition.

Take “competitive sourcing,” a.k.a. outsourcing. While the Interior Department has undertaken years of studies trying to pinpoint NPS positions to outsource, no jobs have yet been transferred out. An April 15 memo written by NPS director Fran Mainella and obtained by the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility reported that “all of the preliminary planning efforts have proven that the government workforce is the best value.” The memo also noted that management changes effected by the competitive sourcing program within the NPS (such as the reorganizations at Natchez Trace and the Southeastern Archaeological Center) were saving the government just $3.1 million annually. To put that in perspective, in 2004 the NPCA estimated the parks’ annual shortfall to be in the neighborhood of $600 million. In other words: Outsourcing is small potatoes, and doesn’t seem to be gaining ground.

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