Testimony of Craig D. Obey

Congressional Testimony

Testimony of

Craig D. Obey
Vice President for Government Affairs
National Parks Conservation Association

Submitted to the

Subcommittee on National Parks
Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
U.S. Senate

July 24, 2003

   Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) appreciates the opportunity to submit testimony on a subject of major concern to us-the administration's plan to outsource a significant number of positions at the National Park Service. NPCA is the only national, nonpartisan advocacy organization exclusively devoted to protecting the national parks. Today, we have more than 300,000 members nationwide.

   The National Park Service is one of the most beloved institutions of American government. It is comprised of some of the most dedicated and underpaid public servants in our nation and is the guardian of our most precious natural and cultural treasures. Not only do the people of the Park Service protect the legacy of great Americans ranging from presidents John and John Quincy Adams and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Wright brothers, but they also bring to life historic battles at Manassas, Gettysburg, and Glorieta Pass, and preserve remarkable gifts of nature at Mount Rainier, Great Smoky Mountains, and Theodore Roosevelt national parks. Together, these places preserve a collective American heritage that must be treated with the highest care.

   Yet, the administration's Office of Management & Budget (OMB) and Department of the Interior are moving aggressively with a policy that could hand over to low-bidding private contractors a majority of jobs in the already understaffed, financially strapped National Park Service, including archaeologists, anthropologists, biologists, museum curators, masons and other maintenance workers. As currently designed, this rapid, massive effort to competitively outsource many Park Service positions threatens to adversely impact our national parks and the experiences of millions of park visitors, and would further limit the ethnic diversity of the Park Service workforce.

   NPCA strongly supports the pause in outsourcing activity approved last week by the House of Representatives. We believe a pause is more than reasonable, given the administration's aggressive, reckless pursuit of outsourcing and competition as an end in itself, without providing due consideration to the mission and needs of our national parks. The Park Service already outsources an enormous amount of activity, but we must look before we leap. It is essential that we avoid reaching a tipping point at which too much responsibility for protecting our national treasures is placed in the hands of commercial interests, and too little left in the hands of the mission-driven Park Service. The protection of our national parks must be acknowledged as an inherent responsibility of government and Park Service employees recognized as key to the preservation of our national heritage for present and future generations.

Background

   Originally established in 1955, and codified by the Federal Activities Inventory Reform (FAIR) Act of 1998, the privatization policy described in OMB Circular A-76 was created to ensure that activities performed by the government are as cost-effective and efficient as possible. The policy outlines the procedure for deciding whether commercial activity done by a federal government employee will be contracted out, kept in-house, or performed by a separate government agency.

   The term "inherently governmental function" defines a function that is so intimately related to the public interest as to require performance by government employees, and therefore not be subject to A-76. OMB's controversial rewrite of the A-76 Circular, which was made public in December 2002 and finalized in May, includes changes that threaten our national parks. The most problematic aspects of the revised Circular are that it:

  • Redefines the term "inherently governmental function" by deleting the provision that includes jobs involving the "regulation of the use of space, oceans, navigable rivers, and other natural resources,"
  • Presumes all federal activities are commercial, and subject to contracting, unless an agency can prove otherwise,
  • Designates a political appointee to approve or reject a career professional's justification that a particular job is inherently governmental, the key test for whether a job is considered commercial, and
  • Requires that all competitions be completed within one year.

   We do not oppose the FAIR Act, nor do we oppose outsourcing in appropriate circumstances. However, we are extremely concerned by the degree to which the Bush administration has broadened the reach of the contracting out of Park Service jobs by removing the presumption that protecting natural resources is an inherently governmental function. Further, we are concerned that the administration has, to this point, demonstrated no willingness to slow this process to the degree necessary to ensure that enormous mistakes are not made.

Privatization in the Parks

   The National Park Service already provides significant and appropriate opportunities for private sector partnerships. The concessions program, which generates annual revenues of $800 million, has long been a private undertaking. More recently, architectural, design, and printing work throughout the National Park System has been and continues to be contracted out. In individual parks, both large and small, superintendents already make decisions as to what jobs can, and should, be outsourced. Thus, without intervention from political appointees in Washington, D.C., the Park Service has already outsourced positions, when appropriate, while retaining the positions and functions that are key contributors to its core mission to protect the national parks and connect the American public to its shared history and culture.

   Importantly, the Park Service has yet to assess the impact of the significant activity it has already outsourced. The fact that so much activity at the Park Service is already in commercial hands provides an enormous opportunity and reason to study what has already occurred, before moving aggressively to further shift the balance. Ultimately, the question asked should not be how many positions conceivably could be placed in commercial hands, but the aggregate impact of such privatization on the mission of the National Park Service.

Costs and Consequences

   NPCA is enormously concerned by the speed, breadth, and cost of the administration's outsourcing effort. The Park Service's own estimates indicate it costs $3,000 per FTE to conduct outsourcing studies. The Park Service's commercial activities inventory identified about 11,500 "commercial" FTE that are potentially subject to outsourcing. Using the Park Service's $3,000 estimate, studying the positions identified in the inventory could cost the taxpayers more than $34,000,000. This total amount far outstrips the Park Service's own estimate earlier this year that bringing in consultants to help run the private-public competitions may cost between $2.5 million and $3 million in the near future. But either way, this is money that the Park Service does not have, as national parks are already operating, on average, with only two-thirds of the needed funding-a shortfall this subcommittee has been quite helpful in pointing out. We think it particularly unwise to spend such funds when the Park Service's base operating budget is actually decreasing in real terms-by 3 percent since FY 2001, according to the House Appropriations Committee-and the Park Service continues to have an enormous backlog of unmet needs.

   The situation at Mount Rainier National Park in western Washington illustrates this point. After a century of intense visitation, the park's roads, bridges, and facilities need dire repairs. Under outsourcing and anti-terrorism requirements, the park may have to divert up to 40 percent of its repair budget, putting important projects on hold. We understand that the outsourcing study of 67 maintenance, rescue, and other staff positions at Mount Rainier Park may be postponed past fiscal year 2004. If such a postponement occurs, we wonder if other parks could receive similar reconsideration. After all, many other national parks are, or soon will be, in similar situations.

   For example, roughly 150 positions at Great Smoky Mountain National Park are scheduled for study in fiscal year 2004. The administration's plan as of this February was to study 37 Park Service positions in New Mexico, almost all of which are in cultural resource management or archeology. In total, the Intermountain region of the National Park Service consists of roughly 5,000 positions. The fiscal year 2003 Commercial Activities Inventory shows that approximately 2,600 FTE could be studied-positions that include maintenance, administration, and natural and cultural resources. OMB is requiring that before fiscal year 2005, 50 percent of the positions on the Commercial Activities inventory be studied. That means studying 25 percent of all positions in the region. Other regions appear to face similar burdens.

   The administration is generally quick to argue that it will only study a cumulative number of 1708 by the end of fiscal year 2004. But this figure ignores the nearly 1,000 direct conversions that have already occurred; some that likely were inherently governmental in nature even under OMB's new definitions, and therefore may have been illegally converted. It also misses the larger point-the cumulative impact of this enormous shift in positions on the long-term ability of the National Park Service to protect our national legacy.

   In addition, Congress did not authorize the expenditure of funds to conduct these studies. The Park Service has been very careful to spend less than $500,000 at a time, thus avoiding the reprogramming requirements of the appropriations committees. But, in total, they have spent much more than this amount, and recently submitted a reprogramming request only after the enormous criticism they received from congressional appropriators.
In one example of expenditures, Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Scott Cameron sent a letter to Congressman Doug Bereuter on May 30, 2003, explaining,

"The Star Mountain/CH2Mhill contractor team competed among three GSA Schedule contractors to perform five studies involving NPS maintenance and architect/engineer services, as well as the Midwest and Southeast Archeological Centers for $872,491. The contract cost attributable to the two Archeological Centers studied was $412,766, or roughly $200,000 per Center."

   To the best of our knowledge, nowhere has the Park Service or the Interior Department explained what Park Service needs went unmet in order to pay for these expensive studies.

   Importantly, in the face of enormous pressure, the Park Service leadership earlier this year raised concerns about the cost and impact of the outsourcing initiative to the Interior Department leadership. The Park Service, itself, raised the possibility that funding these studies could force parks to reduce the number of seasonal rangers hired during the summer months-the very people who serve summer visitors-thereby diminishing the experience of the public. We have similar concerns, and share the concerns raised at that time about costs and the potential impact on the diversity of the Park Service workforce.

Congressional Action

   Concern for how the Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service have handled this issue led the House of Representatives, on a bipartisan basis, not only to prevent the administration from requiring these agencies to conduct any outsourcing studies during fiscal year 2004, but also from finalizing the study of the Park Service's Midwest and Southeast Archeology Centers. According to the report of the House Appropriations Committee:

"The Committee remains concerned about the massive scale, seemingly arbitrary targets, and considerable costs associated with this initiative, costs which are expected to be absorbed by the agencies at a time when federal budgets are declining… This massive initiative appears to be on such a fast track that Congress and the public are neither able to participate nor understand the costs and implications of the decisions being made."

   During the debate on the archeology centers, Congressman Bereuter, who authored the amendment to prevent their outsourcing said, "Now, I do not resist A-76. I have consented and gone along with A-76 for other Federal employment in my district. But this process is flawed from the beginning." He went on to say,
"There are only three such centers in the United States. We are dealing with two of them here, the majority of the archaeological capability. It is mentioned that they frequently do things for other parts of the Federal Government. They have been involved in looking for the remains of the POWs and MIAs in Vietnam. They were involved in examining the sites of the war crimes in the Balkans. This is a particular expertise that will never, ever, be put back in place again if it is destroyed.

   These employees and centers should never have been categorized this way. It is a mistake. They do not want to admit it. Their consultants say it was a mistake, and they have been hushed up as a result with pressure from the National Park Service, pressure which ultimately does come, as the distinguished gentleman from Alaska suggested, from OMB. It is a bean counter that is doing something that is senseless.

   Congressman Don Young, who supported the amendment and keeping the archaeology centers in Park Service hands, said, "I believe in a lot of privatization, but archaeology is a system that has to be addressed by professionals, and these people are truly professionals." NPCA would submit that many more of the positions subject to outsourcing at the Park Service may very well be similarly situated.

   For example, the Management Summary for 2002 and 2003 for the Vanishing Treasures program at the Park Service indicates the program was designed "to bring Vanishing Treasures sites to a condition where routine maintenance will suffice for their preservation and the necessary cadre of skills and expertise can be rebuilt and maintained…approximately $8 million is needed for a preservation work force estimated at 150 individuals." It goes on to state, "For the duration of the Program, funding will be sought for high priority and emergency preservation projects and to recruit and train craftspeople and subject matter experts such as archeologists, engineers, and historical architects." The Park Service has yet to hire even half of the staff contemplated by the initiative, yet it is these very types of people who may be subjected to outsourcing under the administration's initiative.

National Parks Are Mission Driven

   Working in America's national parks is for many park staff more than just a job -- it is a calling. Unlike nine-to-five contract workers, park staff has an extraordinary sense of commitment to their jobs that provides an extra benefit to the national parks and to park visitors. The overlap between the lives and the jobs of National Park Service employees is enormous. A Park Service maintenance person or resource specialist may be red carded to fight fires or might volunteer to give interpretive talks on weekends. There are many examples of this. In fact, few job descriptions reflect the breadth of contribution made by park staff, and it is enormously difficult to see how a low-bidding contractor could replicate the personal dedication and expertise of Park Service staff. In fact, the administration's privatization efforts have already jeopardized the esprit de corps of the Park Service and could undermine its mission.

   As Vice President Cheney observed in 2001, "People expect rangers to know just about everything, and they usually do. The typical park ranger works as a historian, resource manager, law enforcement officer, curator, teacher¾and sometimes paramedic and rescuer." Park Service staff knows and does just about everything. The multi-tasking nature of such positions cannot be reproduced in a contract mechanism, except at much higher expenditures of already scarce resources, and would likely result in a net loss of services without significant savings.

   From the point of view of the public, everyone who wears the uniform of the National Park Service is a park ranger. Because of reductions in the number of individuals employed in the technical ranger series over the years, staff in other positions has increasingly provided the public face of the Park Service.

   The administration wisely said it would not outsource ranger positions in the 0025 series, declaring them to be inherently governmental. Nonetheless, it completely missed the point by ignoring the critical nature of many other positions that will still be outsourced, and by placing decision-making authority in the wrong hands. Curators, historians, and resource managers throughout the park system are subject to being contracted out, as are environmental protection specialists, anthropologists, recreation specialists, and a whole manner of individuals who serve and educate the public. And the people who know the parks least are driving those decisions.

   The people of the National Park Service-from rangers to visitor center staff to masons, open the eyes of hundreds of millions of visitors every year to the natural and cultural wonders of the parks. But with the resources of the Park Service stretched to the limit, many of these same people must now expend enormous time, energy and cost to justify their jobs in an institution that has a 97 percent popularity rating with the American public.

   The contribution of National Park Service personnel to the enjoyment of visitors and to their appreciation and understanding of the parks should not be underestimated. The central role for interpretation in the parks has been apparent from the beginning. As Freeman Tilden, the father of modern interpretation, observed half a century ago, few people who go to the parks are there for a course in botany, archaeology, biology, or geology. He said that when people visit the extraordinary wonders of places like Yosemite, Mount Rainier, and elsewhere, "These things are no longer something just to look at; they are something to wonder about." In Tilden's words,

"If the blind man who was shown the crater of ancient Mount Mazama had happened to be on the trail with a naturalist, he would have found that sight, however precious, is not the only desirable sense, for the guide would have made plants come to keen perception by their odors and tastes; trees by the feeling of their bark; birds by their call-notes and songs. Even many rocks can be recognized, or guessed, by touch, especially when one knows the kind of rocks that might be expected to occur in a locality."

   Depending on the size of or resources available in any given park, all manner of staff, from maintenance personnel to archaeologists, play important roles in enriching the experience of park visitors through interpretation and in providing other assistance to park visitors. This is particularly true in smaller park units. It would be folly undermine such service and commitment by rushing to focus on job categories and position descriptions, rather than on the systemic impact on the parks.

   It is critically important that the national parks be run as efficiently as possible, particularly when they face enormous funding needs and when so many Americans are turning to them as a way to reconnect with their heritage. Indeed, NPCA strongly supports the park-specific assessment of needs that can be used to determine whether and when outsourcing or competitive sourcing of positions can benefit the park's mission. This has already been done in 10 percent of the parks. Contrary to administration assertions about the current outsourcing process promoting efficiency, Interior's implementation of competitive sourcing has not been thoughtful, considered, or appropriately focused, and it takes the key decisions out of the hands of those who best understand the on-the-ground situation in individual parks.

   It is also critically important that efficiency itself not become the end for which we strive in the parks. In some cases, even the option that first appears to be more efficient may be much less protective of a park in the long run. That is why the parks, themselves, must be the ones to drive any outsourcing decisions. There are many cases when specific park managers, after careful business planning and analysis of their mission and needs, have contracted for services that could help them fulfill their mission. Park managers know best what their people do. No two parks are exactly alike, and small remote parks may have very different personnel needs from others. A top-down, bureaucratic process with quotas set inside the Washington Beltway cannot adequately reflect the specific situation and needs of individual national parks.

   The mission of the National Park Service, as set forth in the 1916 Organic Act, should always be paramount: "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." The fulfillment of that mission requires dedicated people, and should be considered an inherent responsibility of government.

Diversity of the Park Service Workforce

   Importantly, privatization threatens to further limit the ethnic diversity of the Park Service workforce in part because many of the jobs targeted for outsourcing are located in metropolitan areas such as Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Santa Fe, and are held by people of color. The Park Service has made great strides recently in increasing the diversity of park staff; privatization will destroy this momentum at the expense of providing opportunities for the private sector.

   Even if some of the outsourced employees are hired by outside contractors, the impact could be a reduction of career-track opportunities to advance within the Park Service. The administration should be spending at least as much effort to provide career track opportunities that enhance the diversity of the Park Service workforce as it is spending to force these individuals to re-compete for their jobs.

Conclusion

   OMB's rewrite of A-76 threatens to undermine the ability of the strongly committed, mission-focused National Park Service staff to continue to adequately protect the 388 units of the National Park System. NPCA supports outsourcing in appropriate circumstances after careful analysis. However, no careful analysis of the contracting that has already occurred has ever been conducted. It is reasonable to require a pause in the administration's outsourcing effort in order to protect our national heritage and the experiences of nearly 300 million visitors who visit our national parks every year.


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