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?

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Regular visitors to northwestern Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park may not have noticed much difference this summer when they pitched their tents at the park’s five campgrounds. The same old sites were still there. The occasional moose still plodded by, and at night, rangers still gave campfire talks.

But a visitor with a keen eye might have wondered: Where was the usual campground staff? In the past, 13 seasonal National Park Service employees managed the campgrounds’ daily operations. This summer, those jobs were shifted to employees of the Grand Teton Lodge and Signal Mountain Lodge Companies, private hospitality operations. The new employees wore company uniforms, not the familiar NPS khakis. Job postings on the Grand Teton Lodge Company’s Web site listed 25 openings for managers, supervisors, and attendants paying between $7.15 and $7.90 an hour.

The change in uniforms – and the people who wear them – was spurred by an unsurprising motive: to save money. Grand Teton, like so many parks today, is feeling a cash crunch. Privatizing campsite operations, park officials say, will result in much-needed short-term savings of $150,000 or so on staff, supplies, and routine maintenance. Over the long haul, these contracts also spell out how the concessionaires, and not the park itself, will pay the $10 to $20 million needed to make overdue renovations, such as putting in more Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant facilities and adding power hookups that RV campers want.

“It’s like having a 50-year-old house that needs a lot of work,” explains park spokesperson Joan Anzelmo. She says the park has been hit hard by rising fuel costs and a maintenance backlog that’s $60 million and climbing. “We have to look at ways to make our federal dollars stretch.”

The impacts can be subtle, and they can be far-reaching, too. The core tasks of the outsourced positions might be collecting fees, keeping nighttime quiet, and maintaining restrooms, but the seasonal workers, who often see these jobs as stepping-stones to full-time gigs, have training in firefighting, first aid, and helping keep scavenging bears out of the campgrounds. Some critics wonder whether a here-one-summer-gone-the-next kid making $7.50 an hour will have the same kind of devotion. To make matters tougher, this shift comes at a time when Grand Teton is cutting its rolls of seasonal staff. Last year, the park hired fewer summer workers in its interpretive division, which runs visitor centers and guided hikes, than it did in 2003, and shortened the season of many it did hire. The trend continued in 2005; according to a park spokesperson, Grand Teton limited some seasonal positions and “restructured” other services.

To be sure, all this belt-tightening isn’t the end of the world for lovers of the park. Grand Teton isn’t the first NPS gem to transfer campsite jobs to private companies – Yellowstone, Denali, and others have, too. But Grand Teton’s move toward privatization, as well as other efforts to shrink its seasonal workforce, is emblematic of the pressure that all parks face today. According to a 2004 study by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), a nonprofit advocacy group, the parks’ budgets are underfunded by about 30 percent. As the gap between how much money they need and how much they get grows wider, park managers are inviting more and more companies, people, and ideas from the private sector to help stretch their dollars. In 21st-century parks, businesspeople and business ideas seem to pop up from under every rock. The million-dollar question is this: Will privatization and other MBA-minded strategies help the parks fix unkempt trails, fight invasive species, and otherwise stay afloat as budgets fail to match rising costs – or is this fixation on bottom-line bean-counting sacrificing something sacred and priceless?

The mix of commerce, recreation, and preservation is hardly new. Beloved parks like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon were built on the backs of the railroads, which donated land to boost ridership on far-flung lines. Concessions such as lodges, gift shops, and guide services have operated profitably on park lands since the get-go. And park supervisors have long had to think like CEOs when they write their budgets and manage their staffs.

The NPS is a gigantic, complex operation, encompassing 388 parks spread over 84 million acres of land, and employing 20,000 full- and part-time staff. The agency’s approved operating budget for fiscal year 2005 was $1.68 billion. More than $1 billion in additional funding was allotted for fixing or restoring roadways, sewer systems, historic structures, trails, and other projects President Bush spoke of when he mentioned the “maintenance backlog” in campaign speeches. Roughly $75 million more came from private supporters – nonprofit “Friends” groups, philanthropic donors, and the like. Another $50 million was generated in profit-sharing from the $800 million in revenues collected by concessions. Long story short: A lot of money flows in and out of the NPS, and many parks are working internally to make sure those funds get used efficiently.

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.

This summer, 30 business-plan consultants, as they’re called, fanned out across the nation. Tim Capozzi, 27, and Dan Cohn, 28, headed to Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, a 125,000-acre park on the Tennessee-Kentucky border that attracts almost a million visitors per year. Both men are former management consultants turned grad students. Capozzi is earning law and public policy degrees at the University of California, Berkeley; Cohn is getting his MBA at the University of Denver.

The two spent hours hunched over laptops, immersing themselves in an accounting program that tracked every dollar that came into Big South Fork and how it got used. As other young seasonals cleared trails, Capozzi and Cohn pondered how Big South Fork could pull in (and save) more money. They analyzed trail maintenance: How much would it cost to make paths safe again in the wake of a Southern pine beetle infestation? They studied archaeological digs: If we invest more to educate parkgoers, will we save on site preservation? They also wound up spending a lot of time convincing park staff they weren’t the spawn of the devil. “We try to emphasize that we aren’t just pencil pushers from Washington. This isn’t Office Space,” says Capozzi, referring to the 1999 Mike Judge movie satirizing corporate dronedom. “This is figuring out ways this park can do its mission better. This isn’t about eliminating jobs, or any of that unsavory stuff.”

Usually, as in Big South Fork’s case, the work of business-izing national parks involves fairly mundane details. John Kelly, park planner at Acadia National Park, says that when he took part in the Business Plan Initiative in 2001, the visiting students took a “SWAT team approach” and “started at a very basic level. It was, ‘How many people does it take to clean a restroom X number of times, over Y number of days?'” Capozzi and Cohn focused on the size of Big South Fork’s truck fleet, as well as its utility costs. Over at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, their colleagues Alice Bond (environmental management, Yale School of Forestry), Alison Sekikawa (MBA, Dartmouth), and Sindhu Srinath (public administration, Columbia) analyzed whether installing automated fee machines might help the park collect money from visitors during hours when entrance gates aren’t staffed.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Most of all, park lovers who worry about business – think’s influence on the park service question how the focus on the bottom line jibes with the parks’ official mission, which isn’t to save or make money, but to preserve natural and historical resources so that present and future United States citizens will be able to enjoy them. The parks might be in the business of business, these people say, but at heart, they aren’t businesses. That distinction is key.

It’s also, critics say, the reason why handing a few campsites over to private businesses, while not a big deal on the surface, bodes ill. Jordan Fisher Smith, author of Nature Noir and a former ranger with two decades in the field, is horrified by the switchover at Grand Teton, which he thinks represents a bald abdication of the parks’ mission to inspire visitors and protect the land. “Those of us who went into rangering remember meeting our first ranger,” he says. “In my case, that young ranger had an archaeology degree and was dressed in the uniform of the park service. So what goes on in that meeting either introduces a visitor to the spirit and values of America’s crown jewels, or there’s just a warm body in a McDonald’s uniform collecting fees. There’s a tradition of selflessness for the benefit of nature itself and all future generations, and there’s one institution that keeps that as its flame: the National Park Service.” Hiring outsiders to do the work, he argues, undermines that mission.

Ultimately, Smith says, the whole enterprise of business-think is bad for the soul of the parks. “There’s a spiritual element and a historical-philosophical element that’s entirely missing in this hardheaded realist idea of the world,” Smith says. “The bottom line is, when you set something aside, you set it aside. Not because it’s convenient, but because that was the deal. And to try to remake it as something that follows the goals and responses of business is to misunderstand it entirely.”

Maybe so, but high-minded rhetoric doesn’t put money in the coffers. Harvard MBA student Reese Neumann, a 28-year-old business-plan consultant who’s helping staff at California’s Channel Islands National Park improve endangered species preservation and distance-learning offerings, thinks Smith’s hard line is nuts. “My perspective is, you’re not going to get all the money you want. You should never stop fighting for those funds. But in the meantime, what can you do to meet the deficit? Do you spend more here, or there?”

Apostle Islands’ Krumenaker wistfully agrees. “I’m up here with my business plan, saying, ‘It’s a new world, folks.’ We’re talking to corporate donors, and others, and there’s a certain amount of salesmanship that is uncomfortable. People worry, are we selling ourselves to the highest bidder? It’s a concern,” he admits. “We all may long for our grandfather’s National Park Service. But it’s not here anymore.”

Eryn Brown approaches freelance writing like a business from her home in Sherman Oaks, CA.

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