Bloated and Underfunded

Bloated and Underfunded...sounds like a description of passengers disembarking the latest Caribbean cruise. Instead, those are Senator Tom Coburn's (R, Oklahoma) odd choice of descriptors on the state of our national parks in a report he released yesterday morning. It had been about 45 minutes since anyone else had taken aim at the parks so I guess it was his turn.

I'm always up for a little Coburn crazy (plus I really dig parks) so I bit.

Parked!, in his staff’s typical style, generously and indiscriminately mixes good, reasonable points with exaggeration and misinformation. Unfortunately, he takes 200+ pages and about 1,000 tables and charts to argue that fees should be raised (agree!), less popular parks should be transferred to the states (a near certain death), and budgets for new land purchases redirected or eliminated (uh, I don’t think so). Kurt Repanshek from the National Parks Traveler had a nice summary in case you want get the gist before diving into the whole enchilada.

For all their flailing around in Excel, Senator Coburn’s team makes good points.  Clearly a lot of thought, research, and analysis went into Parked! But if Coburn’s broader concern is the federal budget, picking on NPS is just silly. It’s like living in a McMansion and driving a luxury car but cutting dry cleaning to close the gap in household finances. The pennies you save aren’t really going to make a difference and you're just going to end up looking bad.

His core issue can be boiled down to this concept of “the thinning of the blood”. In short, he believes new parks drain resources that would otherwise be invested in existing parks. The diversion of funds exacerbates the parks well-documented problems with deterioration and decay.

In reaction, a couple of thoughts…

Parks Aren’t Political. Parks are apolitical places and, for the most part, so are the people who work them. Attempts to spin issues such as deferred maintenance for partisan gain—or to suggest that staff conduct their work in a way to advantage the administration (recent shutdown comes to mind)—are wrong. The challenges facing parks can’t be attached to any one administration because they’ve been known problems for so long. Chronic underfunding, fits and spurts of investment, and lack of Congressional top cover are all “environmental conditions” parks have been coping with since inception.

Lay off NPSers. Park Service staff are average, hardworking Americans with one notable exception.  They believe so deeply in and passionately about the national park system that they've built their careers and lives around it. While there are certainly perks to living on the rim of the Grand Canyon, there are also downsides in terms of professional advancement, maintaining connections with family and friends from remote locations, and ability to build sufficient financial security. These are trade-offs the staff and leadership (largely promoted from within) have made because they believe in the greater good. However, one of the strengths of the NPS culture inadvertently creates a programmatic weakness. These are a bootstrapping, resourceful bunch who are committed to doing the very best they can with whatever resources are available. So most days, they’re busy trying to make the best of a bad budget situation while not proactively or convincingly advocating for what they really need.

Don’t Play Favorites. In a spectacular show of keeping “govmint” out of our personal decisions (a Coburn ideal, I believe), NPS isn’t in the business of telling visitors which parks are better than others. Once a park is authorized as part of the system, staff and leadership embrace the responsibility and get to work. This notion that the crown jewels (Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Denali, etc.) are suffering because NPS offers a geographic and cultural range of experiences misses the whole point NPS was created. Certainly, the sweeping natural beauty of Yosemite Valley is awe-inspiring and I hope many, many people are able to make that journey at some point in their lives. However, I don’t think you can objectively assign a higher value to a vista than you can the deep cultural and historical connections made possible through parks like Flight 93 and the MLK Memorial (more recent additions).

Solutions. Fees absolutely should be raised. Appropriations should be increased and, sure, some organizational streamlining might be appropriate.

On top of all that, there is an opportunity to expand and diversify the NPS role beyond the stewardship of these 401 units. Parks, as we know them today, are almost exclusively physical locations or destinations. They’re designed to optimize the in-person experience (for forever) of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and learning about a place of national importance.

But what if NPS was freed from the expectation to always create a physical place and had the option of preserving and telling our important American stories in a variety of mediums?

Of course, some stories absolutely depend on the physical experience and warrant the long-term investment of tax dollars required to preserve that location into perpetuity. However, some stories may be told just as well (or better) through a alternative, virtual means. I’d advocate for NPS expanding their mission to include the capture, curation, and retelling of America’s stories—without the requirement for a physical park.

Meanwhile, let's show the parks a little love. (A couple of shots from some of my favorite park places are included below.)