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Testimony of Thomas C. Kiernan

Congressional Testimony

Testimony of
Thomas C. Kiernan
President
National Parks Conservation Association

The National Park Service's Business Strategy for Operation And Management of the National Park System

before the
Subcommittee on National Parks
Committee on Energy & Natural Resources
United States Senate

July 14, 2005

   Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify on the utility of business planning in national parks. I am Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association. Since 1919, the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association has been the leading voice of the American people in protecting and enhancing our National Park System for present and future generations. Today we have 300,000 members nationwide who visit and care deeply about our national parks.

   The subject of today’s hearing is of considerable importance to NPCA and we have been working to import the concept of business planning into the national parks and other protected areas for the past eight years. As you know, the concept for bringing this standard business tool to use in national parks was an idea that was hatched in Yellowstone in 1997, when Congress asked for documentation of how the superintendent arrived at a decision to close a campground due to funding problems. It took the park months to gather the needed paperwork and make its case satisfactorily. Through this experience, it became apparent that the park could use some strategic assistance from the business community.

   The National Parks Business Plan Initiative was born the following year as a partnership between NPCA and the National Park Service with the support of several philanthropies in testing the use of business plans in a park environment. As partners, together NPCA and NPS approached the task by importing the talents of the best and brightest from business and public policy schools around the nation and focusing their talents on developing the business plans during their summer break, working hand-in-glove with park managers in the field. Over time, NPCA and NPS developed a comprehensive template for the business students to use that both harnessed existing park data and utilized the students’ insight.

   The business plans the Park Service has been producing at many national park units provide important information about how well existing resources enable park managers and staff to accomplish their mission. This has been, and continues to be, an evolving program; the Park Service deserves credit for continuing to use and improve the business planning process. The Business Plan Initiative helps strengthen financial management capabilities at parks and facilitate meaningful dialogue about park needs. Every year the Park Service’s business plans get stronger, and the evolution of the program promises to continue delivering important benefits in the coming years.

   It took several years to refine the program to the point that it appears today ­ a web-based system that assesses the human and financial capacity of parks to respond to their responsibilities in dozens of categories from concessions management to trails maintenance. The program now used by the Park Service is replicable by the parks on a regular basis and has the capacity to allow managers to track their progress towards addressing shortfalls and problems identified by the plans. The partnership between NPCA and NPS lasted for six years and in that time we completed 64 park business plans. In the past two years, NPS and the Student Conservation Association have completed 24 business plans for park ­ though seven of these plans are updated plans from parks that completed the process years ago. Once the plans being done this summer are published, we estimate that more than 25% of all units in the National Park System will have complete business plans.

Purpose of Park Business Plans

   From the time that the concept was conceived in Yellowstone to today, business plans have been intended to serve a dual purpose: to provide parks with an effective external communications tool and to provide park managers with a useful management tool. In 1997, during the first business plan training session at the historic Lake Ranger Station in Yellowstone, the park managers participating in the program had an extended and prescient discussion about this dual role and the potential importance of business planning to the national parks. The conclusion in that meeting was that the communications role of business plans would be the role most used by the parks but the most important role of the business plans was their use as a management tool, providing the most long-term utility in helping park managers operate as effectively as possible, no matter the resources available. That observation remains true today and outlines both the problems that the Park Service has experienced and the promise that well-done business planning holds for the parks.

   As a communications tool, the focus of the business plan program is on the product itself. Like no other product available to the Park Service (or most other federal or state agencies) business plans encapsulate the “business” of the park: what the park is about, it’s mission, focus, strategic direction, allocation of human and financial resources, additional resources needs, and opportunities for betterment. This is accomplished in a compressed period of time and expressed in a reader-friendly, open format. Parks have used the business plans to educate new staff, new management, and stakeholders of all kinds, from members of Congress to gateway community leaders. They have also proven useful as internal educational tools for NPS regional and national managers, giving parks that have completed business plan an advantage over others in arguing for the allocation of limited dollars distributed at the Washington and regional levels.

   As a management tool, however, the focus and greatest benefit of the business plan program is in the process of business planning itself. The program today is “managed” and the product delivered by the business planning team in Washington, using student consultants in each park to produce individual plans. But development of each plan and the analysis behind it requires very heavy participation by the entire management structure of the park itself, and frequently requires the involvement of line staff as well. This process, though sometimes painful for the parks as they struggle to meet their existing responsibilities, forces a creative and useful interaction between business-focused bright young minds and more traditional park-focused staff. The result for many parks has been an infusion of energy and focus on core priorities by both management and staff and a clearer realization of the opportunities as well as challenges facing the parks. In short, it helps parks to define their forward focus and remind parks of their own core “business,” aligning mission priorities with the distribution of park human and financial resources.

Business Plans Reveal Trends

   The plans examine funding and staffing trends, describe the history and growth of the parks, provide functional analyses, and identify strategic priorities and ways to more efficiently use scarce financial resources for the benefit of park resources and visitors. The plans typically examine five program areas: (1) resource management; (2) visitor experience and enjoyment; (3) facility operations; (4) maintenance; and (5) management and administration.

   Importantly, the business plans have helped identify the park operational areas with the most significant needs, as well as produce a variety of recommendations and innovative solutions. The two functional areas generally shown to need the most attention throughout the park system have been resource protection and visitor experience and enjoyment, both of which are generally also the most under funded. Resource protection programs generally include collections, historic structures, and natural resources. Visitor experience programs generally include interpretation, education, and visitor safety.

Business Plans as the First ­ Not the Last ­ Step Toward Improvement

   The success of business plans as tools for enhancing communications and management is tied very tightly to the understanding that business plans are the first step in a process of improvement ­ not the last step. In NPCA’s experience, there is a one-to-one correlation between parks that have had a successful experience with business planning and the superintendent and management team’s level of understanding of this principle. Park managers that see the document as the final deliverable and expect it to work magic for them by itself are always disappointed. Park managers that take the document with them wherever they go, have a coherent distribution plan, and take the resulting recommendations as the launching platform for defining practical and implementable strategies for improvement inevitably go on to achieve results that empower their staff and deliver both efficiencies and additional resources. The Park Service is now on a path toward repeating the business plan analysis accomplished in the parks in the early years of the program. This should prove to be an especially powerful next step as it provides an opportunity to actively measure progress.

NPS Use and Success with Business Plans

   Business plans have enabled many national parks to identify and address issues that saved money, leveraged additional resources, and improved management, among other things. For example, Gettysburg National Military Park and the Eisenhower National Historic Site, two separate units overseen by one superintendent, completed their business plan in 2002. In the past three years, the park units have acted on a number of the business plan’s strategies for reducing costs and increasing non-appropriated funds. The park staff has implemented a Workforce Planning Strategy through which managers review every position as it becomes vacant to evaluate how critical those positions are to accomplishing the park mission. While this strategy does not help the park fill all necessary vacant positions, it does help them manage the vacancies better.

   One of the greatest achievements was the combining of Gettysburg and Eisenhower operations: Park managers have eliminated positions that were dedicated to site management and maintenance of Eisenhower and have made those tasks collateral duty for Gettysburg staff. The estimated savings of $150,000 to $180,000 annually enables the park to cover other critical needs at Gettysburg that were threatened by diminished ONPS spending power.

   At Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California, the park followed through with its business plan recommendation to increase visitor fees at Muir Woods, capturing an additional $700,000 annually; and the park has moved forward with transferring operating costs for building maintenance to third parties that occupy some of the many buildings in this former military base and improving energy conservation. The park has also leveraged its volunteer program; it now generates the equivalent work of 150 full-time equivalents a year.

   At the conclusion of the business plan partnership between the Park Service and NPCA, however, it became quite clear that some parks had an easier time meeting the challenge of implementing the plans than others. In fact, many parks were approaching the challenge if implementing their business plans with a passive attitude that NPCA feared could lead to the end of a program with enormous potential for improving the national parks. After some investigation, we discovered that the reason for the passive approach expressed by some parks was a direct result of their not understanding how to implement the plans. Though the analytic resources were available to them for the purpose of developing the plans themselves, there were no tools available to help determine the next steps and which management strategies might be more successful than others. To respond to this, NPCA established the Center for Park Management to redouble our efforts on business planning ­ this time with an emphasis several critical areas: (1) helping parks follow through with their own business plans; (2) developing communications plans for parks; (3) helping park managers through the decision-making process regarding the steps to take in implementing solutions to needs identified in the plans; (4) identifying the management strategies most likely to produce the most beneficial results; and (5) helping to resolve any underlying staff or analytic challenges that impeded progress. In order to directly help the parks that were interested, CPM established consulting/client-type relationships with the parks and divorced itself from any role as a more active external advocate.

World-wide Utility of the Business Plan Concept

   The National Park Service is by no means alone in thinking that business planning has a place in fostering the long-term health of parks. As NPCA’s Center for Park Management has focused on helping parks implement their business plans, we have also reached beyond the parks to develop business plans with more than a dozen national forests, a growing list of state park systems, and systems of protected areas abroad. The issues and pressures facing the parks ­ funding shortfalls, unclear priorities, and communications challenges ­ are not unique to America’s national parks. To the contrary, there are surprising parallels in every system with which we have worked, from New Mexico State Parks to the Red Sea parks in Egypt.

   Business plans and other analytic and management tools are commonplace to the business of managing protected areas worldwide, and this concept can be helpful to park managers here and elsewhere. From generating efficiencies so that fee collection rangers can do more with their time and efforts at Virgin Islands National Park, to the reversal of a negative gateway community relationship at Fort Stanwix, to the creation of a marketing plan to increase visitation at Big Bend in the off-season, parks that implement their business plans experience material gains.

Lessons Learned and Future Opportunities

   NPCA’s experience nationally and internationally with business planning allowed us to identify some of the limitations of the existing program and develop ideas for improving it. Our observations are as follows:

  1. Many parks are using the business plans for outreach to stakeholder groups, but many more would benefit from more coherent planning to define the outreach message they want to convey, and to identify the audiences that may be the most helpful or strategic.
  2. The business plan program remains a time-intensive program that ties the student consultants to data collection instead of analysis for the majority of their time. The program should be tweaked to allow much more time for analysis and identification of useful management strategies as well as some teaching of the managers to “open up” the analytic process and prepare them for moving toward implementation on their own.
  3. The Park Service should find a means for staffing the business plan office in Washington or elsewhere with sufficient human resources so that the agency itself can respond to the needs of the parks as they move toward implementation. Through the Center for Park Management, NPCA has provided this service to date, but alone we have insufficient staff and financial resources to provide support to all of the national park units that need assistance.
  4. The Park Service should construct a program that focuses on actively “mining” the data that has been generated by the business plan process. Standing behind every 30-40 page business plan is a pile of data and analysis. Focus on this could tell the agency and Congress much about the allocation of existing funds toward priorities, the balance of visitor-directed funds as compared with resource-directed funds, the unit cost of certain types of programs, and more.
  5. Business plans themselves should be analyzed for common themes and strategies that emerge from the field and the common issues should then receive appropriate regional or national attention. This will allow for the development of common implementation strategies that work for both the individual park units and the more centralized managers. Fleet management and fee collection management are two areas that come easily to mind for us, as we have seen and worked on them with a broad variety of parks.
  6. Park managers should start talking about their experience with business planning with other protected area managers outside of the National Park System. Business planning in one form or another is a increasingly popular tool in protected areas of all types, both in the United States and around the world. Rather than thinking only about their own experience with business planning, the Park Service should be actively seeking the experience of others ­ in the Forest Service, in state parks, in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and elsewhere to identify best practices.
  7. The Park Service should be actively evolving the business plan program to best meet the needs of park managers. Even the best-designed programs in business and government require constant updating if they are to remain vital, useful, and strategic. The Park Service should approach its efforts with business planning no differently, preferably with some insight to what works outside the Park System itself.
  8. Together, the Park Service and Congress should establish a “venture capital” fund to invest in the analysis required to identify the best, most practical opportunities that save money for better, broader use by the parks, or generate or leverage funds best. It is a simple and true adage that sometimes it takes money to make money. It is no different in the Park Service ­ many parks need the financial resources to move ahead with business plan strategies that will save money now or generate more later.
  9. Congress should ask for a periodic accounting of how additional funds are being allocated to business plan parks ­ and to the agency as a whole ­ as compared with the needs identified in those plans.
  10. Finally, the Park Service should regard the business plan process and products as the single ripest opportunity to reach out to existing partners and develop new ones. The Director is absolutely correct in her statements that the agency can not survive without the assistance of many partners. The business plan process is a tool that is tailor-made for introducing parks to new potential partners and involving current partners. Currently, some parks see this clearly and others less so. National and regional emphasis is required to identify the cultivation of beneficial partnerships as a target goal of business plans.

Relation of Business Plans to Core Operations

   The National Park Service has been developing a new core operations analysis that can be used to supplement and further inform the business plan process in the future, if done right. The Park Service has yet to finalize how the core operations process will or should work, so NPCA continues to watch this developing approach closely. As we understand it, however, we believe the new core operations approach can be useful in helping national parks prioritize how best to spend their limited funds in light of their core mission. This being said, it is essential that core operations analysis be used to inform and supplement, not replace, business planning. In addition, it will be important for the Park Service to develop a core operations process that is sufficiently flexible that it allows the mission and focus of particular national parks to evolve as we learn more about the treasures those parks preserve. For example, last year Congress, with the help of this subcommittee, passed legislation to expand Petrified Forest National Park. Among the primary purposes of that expansion was the realization that the park and surrounding areas are a world class paleontological resource. But when the park was first set aside, we only knew about the beautiful petrified wood that was there. In addition, core operations must ensure that park visitors have the best possible opportunity to benefit from Park Service interpretation of the resources and artifacts preserved in our 388 national parks.

Conclusion

   The challenge for the Park Service is to continue to develop the program in a manner that maintains the focus on the needs of managers in the field, continually evolves to reflect lessons learned and best practices from within and outside the agency, and uses the information generated for productive, strategic purposes on a regional and national scale.

   For ourselves, NPCA will continue to press for ways that the national parks can improve their management and efficiency, while advocating that the parks also receive the additional resources for which virtually every business plan demonstrates a need. Although many parks have room to improve their management efficiency, our extensive experience with business planning in the parks has made it clear that the shortage of needed fiscal resources lies at the root of many of the ills facing the parks today. As the subcommittee knows, the national parks face significant funding shortfalls.

   Clearly, the national parks must make every dollar count, no matter the level of funding available, and we are working to ensure that the parks have the best tools and the right human resources to make sure of this for the future. But business plans, themselves, are not a panacea. Rather, they provide powerful tools to help lead the way to the fiscally sound, healthy, well-protected National Park System that Americans respect and deserve. For business plans to produce a long-lasting impact, Congress must use this tool to guide, and where necessary, make investments in park operations and maintenance, demand from the Park Service broader implementation of the plans’ recommended efficiency improvements, and help the Park Service extend and adapt the business plan process throughout the Park System. Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions.



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