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Traveler's View: Bridges, Radios, And Budget Woes In The National Parks


The need to take roughly one-quarter of the National Park Service's entire construction budget to help pay for repairs to the Arlington Memorial Bridge should convince Congress that it must better fund the Park Service/NPS

If you ever wondered whether the National Park Service is hamstrung by an insufficient budget, all you need do is look at news from the past week.

In touting that the Trump administration was committed to "rebuilding American infrastructure and (taking) a major step in addressing the National Park Service’s $11.3 billion maintenance backlog," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Friday said a $227 million contract had been issued to repair the dilapidated Arlington Memorial Bridge that funnels tens of thousands of vehicles into the District of Columbia each day of the year.

What he didn't note was that a good chunk of that money -- $33 million -- was being pulled out of the Park Service's annual construction budget and, in fact, represented about a quarter of that budget account. Nor did Secretary Zinke say that a consequence of that withdrawal means that a publicly unspecified number of construction projects across the National Park System will be delayed due to a lack of funding.

What projects will be put off and for how long? Park Service staff couldn't say Friday.

But if you look at the Park Service's Fiscal 2017 budget document, it lists such construction work as replacing the Lincoln Memorial Roof ($2.2 million), replacing the electrical infrastructure for safety on Floyd Bennett Field at Gateway National Recreation Area ($9.1 million), and rehabilitating the Paradise Inn Annex and Connection Snow Bridge at Mount Rainier National Park ($13.2 million). Some of those projects are already under way, maybe all of them, but there are many others on the agency's construction list, which runs three pages deep.

Not on any of those three pages, as it's not entirely a construction project, is the need to replace the obsolete radio system rangers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park try to rely on to stay in touch across the sprawling, mountainous park.

"Motorola is no longer making pieces for the components we have," park spokeswoman Dana Soehn told me last week. "They’re more than 15 years old. They’re also no longer providing technical support for those.”

Though the lifespan of the radios, purchased in 2003, was estimated at 10 years, park personnel somehow managed to keep them operating for another five years. But keeping the radios alive is not the same as having a fully functional, reliable radio system when emergencies arise. That was never more evident than a year ago when the Chimney Tops 2 fire blew up in the park. In analyzing the park's handling of that deadly fire, a review team said, among other things, that there was a need to upgrade Great Smoky’s radio communications system "to ensure interoperable communication between the park’s emergency responders and local cooperators, with capacity to accommodate multiple simultaneous incidents."

"When you lose all those (communication) services, like we did on November 28 (2016), you realize how vulnerable you are," Ms. Soehn said during our conversation.

Fortunately, the Friends of the Smokies is helping the Park Service raise $2.5 million to pay for that system.  And yet, while park friends groups long have been viewed as providing the "icing" atop park operations, paying for the extras that park visitors benefit from, now, at least in the case of Great Smoky, the friends group is being relied upon to provide some of the bone and muscle of the park's operations. With the park having a maintenance backlog of $211 million, will Friends of the Smokies be asked to fund more and more essentials?

“You think about a radio system that is a critical piece of equipment to the health and safety of park employees and park visitors. A critical need, clearly," said Phil Francis, whose lengthy Park Service career included a long stint as superintendent of Blue Ridge Parkway. "And to have to pay for critical needs with donated funds is a real shame."

While it was encouraging to see that U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, was able to obtain $30 million to go towards the repair of the Arlington bridge, the Park Service nevertheless has been boxed into a financial corner by Congress' lack of support, to the point where it has to steal from Peter to pay Paul for various needs.

* Two years ago Traveler reported that Grand Canyon National Park officials had to scrape up nearly $50 million from dozens of parks, along with $25 million from the Washington headquarters and $25 million from its own bank accounts, in a $100 million bid to make a long-term concessions contract for the South Rim more palatable to bidders. In reporting that story, we found that the Park Service owed an estimated half-a-billion-dollars of obligations to concessionaires who run lodges, restaurants, and even some activities, for the agency. While Park Service officials at the time said that dollar amount was manageable, it seemingly stifled concessions competition in some parks and led the agency to divert tens of millions of dollars from some parks to others to reduce the debts.

* At Death Valley National Park, an historic flood in October 2015 did substantial damage to roads and Scotty's Castle, damage that has kept the castle closed to the public, forced park officials to come up with ticketing programs to raise funds to help with repairs, and, yes, borrow from other parks.

* Now the Park Service construction budget has been raided to fund one project that, while critical, should have been either entirely funded by Congress or, perhaps, with tolls paid by all those 68,000 motorists who use the Arlington Memorial Bridge every day.

"The Park Service has gotten pretty good planning for emergencies," Death Valley Superintendent Mike Reynolds told the Traveler in January 2016. "They don't always happen in Death Valley, but given the diversity of national parks ... they happen somewhere, especially with climate change, more and more frequently, so the Park Service is pretty good about having the ability to redirect project funds from other parks to target disaster recovery.

“It’s not perfect, they don't have $50 million sitting around, but they’re really good at sort of planning that and being able to shuffle the checkers around and being able to delay some other projects to cover that. So that’s our current plan," he added. 

Is that how the Park Service should be run, operating from emergency to emergency, planning projects in a park only to have to delay them when another park's needs are greater?

Emergencies will arise, no matter what the Park Service's fiscal fitness. That's a given. But when the Park Service's overall budget has been relatively flat in recent years -- and took a major hit in 2013 with the sequestration mandated by law --, and when the maintenance backlog is between $11 billion and $12 billion, building up a separate account to deal with emergencies would be a great solution. That, of course, requires adequate Congressional funding to, first, wipe out the maintenance backlog and, second, give the Park Service enough flexibility to make ends meet after mandated costs are paid.

“About 90 percent of all the parks’ budgets is going to personnel," said Mr. Francis, also a member of the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks. "And (parks) have to pay them. And there are other fixed costs (e.g., utilities) that they have to pay."

At the National Parks Conservation Association, John Garder said needy projects such as the Arlington Bridge are "rampant throughout the park system."

"And it’s seriously challenging the ability of parks to meet their mission," said Mr. Garder, the association's senior director of budget and appropriation. "If you look at the trajectory of federal spending over the years it’s clear that as the Park Service struggles to keep up with staff levels and basic operating costs, Congress has failed to provide enough to authentically address construction costs. It’s high time our decision-makers stop looking at Band-Aid approaches like proposed fee increases that threaten to price American families out of their parks, and instead commit to the kind of robust investment that’s needed, such as that proposed in the bipartisan National Park Service Legacy Act."

At The Pew Charitable Trusts, Marcia Argust, who directs the Restore America's Parks initiative, was glad to learn of the Arlington bridge proposal, but said a more reliable funding approach is needed for the 417 parks.

"That just goes back to why we need dedicated annual funding, and more funding, to address park maintenance," she said. "We want (the Arlington bridge) addressed for safety reasons. But you don’t want to be delving into other projects and delaying other projects, especially if they’re other priority projects.”


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The problem here isn't underfunding the parks, it is burdening the parks with maintenance responsiblities for assets that never should have been part of the NPS to begin with. 


I could not agree more with ecbuck I would only add that we have too many substandard parks

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