Congressional Hearing Examines Health of Northwest's National Parks

Date:   September 14, 2005
Contact:   Cory Haller, NPCA, 206-903-1444, ext. 26
Kelli Holsendolph, NPCA, 202-454-3311

Congressional Hearing Examines Health of Northwest's National Parks

SEATTLE - At a congressional field hearing today at the Lewis Creek Visitor Center in Bellevue, Washington, the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) testified about the funding needs of national parks in the Pacific Northwest and the benefits of these parks for gateway communities, delivering 5,000 public comments from park visitors on why they care about the parks and the need for increased funding. The hearing, hosted by Government Reform, Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Mark Souder (R-IN), is part of a series of congressional hearings to be held over the next two years to examine America’s national parks.

“There is no question that one of the most pervasive challenges facing America’s parks is chronic underfunding,” said NPCA Board Member and President and CEO of Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI), Sally Jewell in her written testimony. “While REI and other private organizations and philanthropies are more than willing to partner with the Park Service, …The private sector and philanthropy expects to see a return on its investment. For when the private sector sees itself supplanting, rather than supplementing funding for our parks, they will retreat.”

In its testimony, NPCA raised concern about the funding needs at Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks, specifically. At Mount Rainier, funding shortfalls have left the park without a full-time vulcanologist, despite its being surrounded by an active volcano. Park officials estimate the backlog of deferred maintenance costs for historic buildings, trails, and bridges, exceeds $100 million. The health of Olympic National Park is chronically threatened by annual funding shortfalls too—in its case, in excess of $6 million. Two years ago, funding shortfalls threatened to close the visitor center in Forks near Olympic; and in order to address shortages, the park has cut back on permanent staffing levels and reduced the number of seasonal staff hired.

The benefits of the national parks for surrounding communities were also offered in NPCA’s testimony. NPCA collected over 5,000 comments from park visitors at national parks across the Pacific Northwest this past summer about why they care about the parks and support increased funding for parks. Ms. Jewell submitted their comments for the record during the hearing. A resident of Vancouver, Washington, wrote, “The national parks provide historical information. They also promote tourism, which helps stimulate the local economies.” More than 15 area chambers of commerce and business leaders in gateway towns and cities to the national parks in Washington and Oregon signed on and submitted a joint letter to Chairman Souder about the role national parks play in supporting and maintaining strong and economically vibrant communities and the need for adequate funding for the parks to satisfy park visitors and to keep them coming back. This letter was submitted for the record at today’s hearing, as well.

National parks play a critical role in both the identity and economy of the Pacific Northwest, as pointed out in NPCA’s testimony. Each year more than 8 million tourists visit the region’s national parks. In 2003, these visitors spent over $250 million in the parks and gateway communities, creating over 6,700 jobs, according to Michigan State University’s conservative economic model.

NPCA called on Congress and the administration today to increase the parks’ annual operations budget and pass the National Park Centennial Act. According to NPCA’s March report, Faded Glory: Top 10 Reasons to Reinvest in America’s National Park Heritage, the national parks are crippled by a $600 million annual funding shortfall and a backlog of maintenance needs estimated by the Congressional Research Service to range between $4.5 and $9.7 billion.

The National Park Service, Former National Park Service Director Russ Dickenson, and City of Forks, Washington, Attorney and Planner William Fleck also gave testimony today.

In his written testimony, Mr. Dickenson, a 39-year veteran of the National Park Service, including holding the position of regional director for the Pacific Northwest said, “There is not a park here in the Pacific Northwest that isn’t being forced to leave important jobs undone or staff positions unfilled because of insufficient budgets.” In addition to providing testimony about the funding woes facing the national parks, Mr. Dickenson also pointed to the proposed rewrite of the Park Service’s guiding principles as another critical threat to the future of the parks. “Even if we are able to tackle the enormous fiscal crises facing our national parks, the change to Park Service management policies that has been widely publicized in recent weeks poses every bit as insidious a risk to the future of our national parks,” said Dickenson.

This series of hearings is the first focused effort by Congress in decades to examine national park funding needs in-depth, and to identify solutions to meeting the challenges. Information gathered during the hearings is being used by Rep. Souder to establish a comprehensive record of the needs of the nation’s parks. Chairman Souder has held hearings previously in Gettysburg, Penn., Washington, D.C., and Boston, Mass.


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