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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?

Critics of the influx of businesspeople into the parks focus on the potential for future havoc. They say outsourcing isn’t as simple as it looks, because park service employees often wear many hats. “When I was the superintendent at Grand Canyon, we had a historic cabin catch on fire,” says Rob Arnberger, who retired as NPS regional director for Alaska in 2003. “The alarm went off all through the park. Everyone responded to that fire. The guy in charge was a second-level ranger. The man on the hose was the assistant chief of interpretation. The three people behind were maintenance workers. The guy bringing up the rear was our computer specialist. I don’t care how you dissect this, there is no outside company that can provide workers who’ll do all that.”

Observers also make noise about the high cost of business analysis. According to Rick Smith of the Coalition of National Park Retirees, NPS sources say the agency spends $3,000 per position defending itself in comparative sourcing reviews – money that could otherwise go toward filling empty jobs, supporting interpretive programs, or saving grizzlies. “They’re sacrificing effectiveness on the altar of efficiency,” says Smith.

Smith also worries that superintendents who are urged to pursue private-sector fundraising will be tempted to make decisions based on profit instead of what’s best for the parks. “If your job performance is based on how much money you bring in, you’re going to encourage the guys with the RVs to come in,” he says.

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