Statement of Thomas C. Kiernan

Congressional Testimony

Testimony of
Thomas C. Kiernan, President
National Parks Conservation Association

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

July 8, 2003

   Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today. I am Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association. NPCA is America's only national private, nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated solely to protecting, preserving, and enhancing the National Park System. NPCA was founded in 1919 and today has approximately 300,000 members across the country that care deeply about the well being of our national parks.

   We greatly appreciate you focusing on the backlog of unmet needs throughout our national park system. You have asked that we discuss the maintenance backlog, land acquisition backlog, and deficit in personnel within the National Park System. In addition, you have asked that we explore the interaction of these issues and discuss whether certain parts of the system appear more affected by them than others.

   I want to start by thanking you, Chairman Thomas, for helping to champion the bipartisan effort in the Senate to increase operational funding for the National Park Service. NPCA appreciates your leadership on this issue, working in a bipartisan fashion with senators Graham, Akaka, Smith, Bingaman, and others. Addressing the operational shortfalls in our parks is critical to both avoiding backlogs of the future and to ensuring the Park Service meets its mission to protect park resources and provide visitors to our national parks with the best possible memories and experiences.

Maintenance Backlog

   Managing the National Park Service is an enormous undertaking. The 388 units that comprise the national park system include more than 30,000 structures and 80 million artifacts. The Park Service's portfolio includes 8,000 miles of roads, 1,500 bridges, 5,385 housing units, 1,500 water and wastewater systems, 200 radio systems, 400 dams and more than 200 solid waste operations. These items are all integrated into one of the most awe-inspiring repositories of our collective American heritage that exists.

   There is no question that the maintenance backlog in our national parks is a problem. According to the National Park Service's recent report, Partnering & Managing for Excellence: "This backlog has had a profound effect on the visitor experience and the public's ability to appreciate and enjoy our national parks' natural, historic, and cultural wonders."

   To better understand the backlog, one must understand its root cause? lack of sufficient funding for park operations and maintenance. It is also important to note that backlog is not a static term, but rather the backlog ledger is constantly changing as some maintenance needs are met and others arise. Additionally, effectively addressing the backlog requires an understanding about the condition of our parks. Historically, the Park Service and the rest of us have been ill equipped to know the extent of the maintenance needs in parks. According to the January 2003 GAO report Major Management Challenges and Program Risks: Department of the Interior: "Despite the importance of its maintenance program, the Park Service has yet to accurately assess or define the scope of its maintenance needs ... the agency does not have an accurate inventory of the assets that need to be maintained, nor accurate data on the condition of these assets."

   Since GAO issued its report, the Park Service has been engaged in a multi-year effort to develop an accurate baseline of backlog needs. They appear to be making progress with this important first step, and we are encouraged by reports of their new state-of-art system to inventory, monitor and prioritize backlog maintenance. This will be enormously helpful to the parks, Congress, and the public in better understanding and addressing the maintenance backlog in the parks. We also understand that the Park Service has launched an aggressive training and implementation plan to inventory and assess the condition of park facilities. The Park Service's recently released document entitled Partnering and Managing for Excellence, though it paints an overly rosy picture of the state of our national parks, reports that assessments at 125 parks were completed by December of 2002, and that by the end of FY 2003 assessments will be completed at all but four of the largest parks. We encourage the Park Service to share each assessment as it is completed.

   The park maintenance backlog knows no party line. It has accumulated through Democratic and Republican administrations and congresses. We have been encouraged by the bipartisan support for addressing the operational funding shortfall for the parks, the root cause of the backlog. We also believe it to be critically important to have a highly transparent process for identifying the current unfunded backlog and how its dollar value compares with prior estimates, so we can collectively determine how to address the problem once and for all.

   As you know, in 1998 the General Accounting Office estimated the maintenance backlog to be approximately $6.1 billion based on Park Service data from 1993. However, $1.2 billion of this estimate was for the construction of new facilities, leaving approximately $4.9 billion for existing facility maintenance and construction. GAO indicated in January of this year that the Department of Interior estimated the backlog to be between $4.1 and $6.8 billion.
Clearly, addressing the backlog will require a significant increase in the rate of investment for the programs that comprise it -- facility maintenance and construction -- as well as more realistic annual operational funding for the Park Service to prevent additional backlog from accumulating. We had high hopes at the beginning of this administration, but have been disappointed by the administration's failure to come close to increasing the rate of investment to the extent necessary to significantly reduce and ultimately eliminate the backlog.

   Nonetheless, we gave the administration credit for a number of its funding-related initiatives in our recent evaluation of their efforts. One area where the administration deserves praise is for its proposed increase for the park roads and parkways program. The administration's proposed transportation reauthorization bill would increase funding for park roads from $165 million to $300 million in fiscal year 2004, $310 million in 2005 and $320 million annually thereafter. The proposal would also dedicate $30 million for alternative transportation, but makes several agencies eligible for the funds, leaving alternative transportation funds substantially short of the $1.6 billion the Department of Transportation has conservatively estimated will be needed over the next 20 years-an issue we encourage the subcommittee to examine. Clearly, however, given the competing demands for funds within the transportation reauthorization bill it will be extremely difficult to achieve the overall funding level the administration has proposed, and we hope they will make this a litmus test issue as part of the reauthorization effort.

Fee Demonstration Program

   The Park Service's Recreational Fee Demonstration Program has made important contributions to addressing a number of maintenance backlog needs in the parks, and we very much appreciate the leadership that Chairman Thomas and Senator Bingaman have shown on this issue. Although NPCA has taken no position on whether to expand that program to other agencies, we support your efforts to make the program permanent for the National Park Service. As you know, it is enormously important that the Park Service's fees be closely monitored and that the program supplement, not supplant federal dollars. Since it began in fiscal year 1997 the program has already provided $584 million to the Park Service, with another estimated $250 million in FY 2003 and 2004. Public surveys have shown strong, but not unlimited, support for entrance and use fees. The fee program is not the solution to the backlog, but it is part of the solution.

Operational Funding

   The failure of the Park Service's annual operations budget to adequately meet the needs in the parks contributes to the backlog. While Congress has placed a great deal of focus and attention to the maintenance backlog, we must be equally if not more diligent in our efforts to address the operational shortfall in our parks. Shortfalls in annual operations funding create new backlog. In addition, discussions of the backlog frequently gravitate toward bricks-and-mortar, but as the subcommittee knows, there is a critical backlog of unmet resource protection needs throughout the park system.

   NPCA estimates based on the Park Service's business plans from more than 50 parks that national parks suffer from an annual shortfall in operational funding of roughly 32 percent. Although Congress, with the help and involvement of this subcommittee, has moderately increased the operating budget for the Park Service, this funding has not kept pace with the needs of the parks. Furthermore, NPCA shares the concern recently raised by the House Interior Appropriations Committee in its report on the fiscal year 2004 Interior bill -- the erosion of base program budgets. According to the House appropriators, the capacity of the Park Service to serve the American people is eroding because recent budgets have only partially funded costs of pay increases proposed by the administration and approved by Congress, and have not provided sufficient inflationary adjustments. The resulting necessity for the National Park Service operating account to absorb fixed costs during the last two years has been equivalent to a three percent reduction from 2001 program levels. The end result is an erosion, not an increase, in the operational resources available to the Park Service -- a critical issue when attempting to reduce the backlog over the long term.

   The National Park Service has a tremendous responsibility as the caretaker for these national treasures, yet it does not have the tools it needs to do so fully. Homeland security demands have added a new dimension to the problem. Many parks throughout the system have shipped critical personnel elsewhere to augment homeland security demands at other sites, further straining resources that are already stretched to the limit. In addition, it is estimated to cost the National Park Service $63,000 per day every time the Department of Homeland Security issues an orange alert. Each park has to bear the impact of these costs, making an austere budget climate even more grim. Across the system, the impact of these costs quickly adds up. Unfortunately, while the Park Service has faced increased costs due to homeland security needs, its budget has not increased correspondingly, nor is the Park Service eligible for funding under the Department of Homeland Security.

   While it is important to address the current facility maintenance and resource protection backlog needs in the parks, if we continue to provide insufficient operating funding for the parks, we will only be replacing existing backlogs with new ones.

Personnel Deficit

   The 2001 National Park System Advisory Board report, Rethinking the National Parks for the 21st Century, focused important attention on the institutional capacity of the Park Service to accomplish its evolving mission. According to the report, "The Park Service must have the expertise to administer parks as educational resources, protect park resources in landscapes that are increasingly altered by human activity, and fashion broad collaborative relationships with academia, the private sector, state, local, and other federal agencies. It must continue to provide high quality visitor experiences, and present America's unfolding story in a manner that connects with the nation's increasingly diverse population."

   The employees of the National Park Service, from rangers to maintenance workers, do a remarkable job with the resources available to them. They are committed individuals for whom the Park Service and public service are a way of life. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of them to meet the significant, evolving challenges that our national parks face.

   Many of us remember how many campground programs, ranger walks, and other casual encounters we used to have with park rangers, interpreters, and other park service personnel when we were young. Unfortunately, our children have fewer opportunities, both because there are so many more visitors to the national parks today than there were 20 or 30 years ago, and because park service staffing has not kept pace with the need.

   At Death Valley National Park, for example, public education activities were cut by more than one-third in fiscal year 2002. The park can no longer afford a staff member dedicated to public education and outreach, including environmental education programs for school and community groups. Today there are 1837 full time equivalent (FTE) interpreters in the national parks and 765 FTE among the part time ranks. That means the park service has roughly 1 interpreter per 100,000 park visitors. Although this is an admittedly crude measure of capacity, it illustrates the enormous challenge the Park Service faces in providing a quality experience to park visitors.

   The Park Service also faces other staffing challenges. Several regional directors will retire in the very near future. Many parks have shortages in critical positions. For example, the number of commissioned law enforcement rangers has actually decreased since 1980. According to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, there were1841 commissioned permanent rangers and 616 seasonal rangers in 1980. But by 2001 the number of permanent commissioned rangers had dropped 16.4 percent, to 1539, and the number of seasonals had dropped 23.9 percent, to 147. During the same time, visitation to the parks has increased by nearly 60 million people and the number of units has increased by 59.

   The national parks provide incredible opportunities to connect all Americans, but especially youth with our collective history and to train the next generation of scientists. As the Advisory Board report points out, education that links classroom learning with field experiences produces better results. When students, or adults, for that matter, visit a Gettysburg, the battle and its historical importance comes to life. When they visit the Adams Historic Site, figures from their past become more tangible than when read about in textbooks. When students participate in a paleontological dig at Petrified Forest or hear a wolf howl at Yellowstone, these remarkable places and their value and meaning come to life.

   Unfortunately, many parks must turn away requests from schools for on-site education programs. At Gettysburg, the Park Service must hold a lottery for its on-site education programs, denying one out of four schools. Petrified Forest is unable to accommodate many requests from local schools. At Yellowstone, lack of staff requires the park to turn away nearly 60 percent of all school groups wishing to participate in a week-long, hands-on educational program. Joshua Tree had to turn down approximately 75 requests for school programs in FY 2001. And these parks are not alone.

   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. 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.

   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. They typically examine five program areas: (1) resource management; (2) visitor experience and enjoyment; (3) facility operations; (4) maintenance; and (5) management and administration.

   Two of the most important functional areas throughout the national parks are resource protection and visitor experience and enjoyment, both of which are generally also the most underfunded. Resource protection programs generally include collections, historic structures, and natural resources. Visitor experience programs generally include interpretation, education and visitor safety.

   The fiscal year 2001 business plan for Gettysburg National Military Park and Eisenhower National Historic Site shows a resource protection deficit of $907,000 and 10.73 FTE on a total resource protection budget of $2.48 million and 42.5 FTE (full time equivalent positions). The shortfall is particularly acute in the cultural resource management program, therefore impacting the preservation and protection of historic structures, collections, and landscapes. Visitor experience and enjoyment programs at the two units are $1.3 million and 13.3 FTE short of the need, compared with total available funding of $1.5 million and 32.4 FTE. According to the plan, underfunding in this area means the parks have too few interpretive rangers to meet the demand of visitors and schools. Underfunding also means too few staff to orient visitors at the visitor center and insufficient operating funds to properly maintain, monitor and inspect the structural fire suppression system.

   According to its business plan, Bandalier National Monument in 2000 had a shortfall of $954,504 and 20 FTE for resource management compared to available funding of $1.48 million and 22.1 FTE. The visitor experience budget was short $461,650 and 9 FTE compared with available funding of $646,066 and 12.8 FTE. Consequently, the park's primary challenge in this area is insufficient staffing for interpretation. In the case of Bandalier, the challenges the park faces in these two areas is joined by a management and administration funding shortfall of $632,403 and 7.7 FTE compared to a management budget of $487,270 and 7.9 FTE.

   The chart below shows the business plan findings for a reasonably illustrative group of parks, to provide the subcommittee with an idea for how funding and personnel shortfalls are typically distributed within the parks. In highlighting these parks, we in no way wish to signal that they require more or less attention than others. Rather, they all produced quality business plans that can help the committee understand the resource and staffing challenges that face virtually all units of the national park system.

Funding and Staffing Needs-Select Park Units

Park &

Available $*

Required $



(FY 2001)





& admin


























(FY 2000)





& admin


























(FY 2000)





& admin


























Joshua Tree
(FY 2001)





& admin


























Fort Stanwix
(FY 2001)





& admin


























* includes appropriated and non-appropriated funds
** Fort Stanwix received a $570,000 appropriated base budget increase in FY 2002, nearly eliminating the entire 47 percent shortfall. The Fort is nearly fully funded

  Importantly, business plans are a tool that parks put to use. For each of the parks described above, the plans identified needs that park managers are working to address. Their challenge, of course, is implementing creative programs to maximize available resources and finding the additional funds to truly meet the needs of their parks. They have challenging jobs, which they and their staff do very well.

   The chairman asked that we describe whether shortfalls in personnel and resources tend to be concentrated in certain regions, among different types of park unit, or tend to be specific to parks. The short answer is that we cannot yet be certain. However, our preliminary analysis suggests that most of the primary problems-particularly in interpretation (visitor experience) and resource preservation-are evenly distributed. Nor does there appear to be a significant difference between the national parks, historic parks, national monuments or other units. In general, the business plans developed with the Park Service have shown an overall shortfall ranging between 20 and 40 percent, with a small number of parks like Fort Stanwix National Monument, which received sufficient funds in FY 2002 to eliminate virtually its entire shortfall and is instituting strategies identified in the business plan to address the remainder. An analysis of the business plans developed by the Park Service thus far indicates that funding and staffing challenges are relatively similar across the system. The budget functions that tend to have the most significant need generally include resource protection and visitor experience. Overall, the ubiquitous nature of these shortfalls illustrates the enormous challenge that continues to face the park service, and calls into serious question the administration's aggressive effort to outsource Park Service positions.

   Despite these challenges, modern technology presents incredible opportunities to bring the national parks closer to people who may be hundreds or even thousands of miles away-opportunities the Park Service works to provide through its Parks as Classrooms program. Volunteers provide enormous assistance to the parks through their dedication and devotion. In fiscal year 2002, 125,000 volunteers donated 4.5 million hours (equivalent to 2156 FTE) to the national parks. Since 1990, the number of volunteers in the national parks has increased by roughly 5 percent per year. But even though volunteers and technology provide invaluable tools to help protect the parks and even educate park visitors, they are not the entire solution.

   Efforts to significantly increase volunteerism in the parks will require that sufficient staff be made available to supervise them. Volunteers must be trained and guided, and park staff need to determine how to put them to use.

Land Acquisition

   Since Congress created it in 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has been the principal federal source of funding to acquire new park and recreation lands. Similar to the Highway Trust Fund, the LWCF account was envisioned as the primary dedicated funding source for land conservation. Revenues generated principally from drilling on the outer continental shelf are supposed to be allocated to land management agencies for land acquisition and recreation. However, as the subcommittee is aware, Congress has not fully funded the LWCF to its authorized $900 million annually, despite trust fund revenues that far exceed expenditures. Through fiscal year 2001, the total amount that could have been appropriated over the years was $24.5 billion, but only $11.4 billion had been appropriated-less than half the authorized amount.

   To address this situation, in fiscal year 2001 Congress reached an historic agreement to significantly increase funding for the LWCF through a new Conservation Trust Fund. This groundbreaking bipartisan accomplishment was intended to protect America's conservation, recreation, wildlife, and historic resources. As members of the subcommittee are aware, this funding mechanism was created as a compromise during the debate surrounding the passage of the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA). The Conservation Trust Fund was intended to provide a dedicated level of annual funding for LWCF and other conservation programs for fiscal years 2001-2006, for a total $12 billion during this period. Unfortunately, the Conservation Trust Fund was dramatically underfunded in fiscal year 2003, and appears to face similar shortfalls in the upcoming fiscal year.

   Expansions of and additions to the national park system are necessary. Clearly, expansions of the system have had an impact on the fiscal and personnel needs of the Park Service, but the extent to which they have diminished the resources available for other Park Service needs is unknowable. It is far from clear that the Park Service would have the same financial resources or support it has today if these expansions had not occurred.

   Until the rate of investment for the Park Service has increased to the point that is necessary to fulfill the Park Service's mission and purpose, the Park Service will have to struggle between competing priorities. NPCA strongly believes the operations budget should be a significant priority, but that we cannot turn a blind eye to once-in-a-lifetime opportunities or newly emerging threats to the very places we're trying to preserve for future generations. If a park is endangered and the acquisition of an in holding or adjacent land will help protect it, that acquisition should become a priority.

   Importantly, in holdings frequently create management burdens for national park personnel. In some cases the acquisition of an in holding or adjacent land may actually reduce those burdens and enable personnel to focus on other needs. As the members of the subcommittee know, owners of ecologically, culturally or historically sensitive land within and adjacent to parks periodically decide to sell or develop those lands. At times, such situations pose direct threats to the enjoyment of park visitors and the well being of the parks, themselves. The Park Service must have the ability to acquire these lands when necessary to protect the integrity of a given park.

   For example, Petrified Forest National Park is known worldwide as the premier window into Triassic era paleontology, but only 6 miles of the 22-mile long famous, fossil-rich Chinle escarpment are within the park. This is a priceless, rare resource that should be protected as part of the park, particularly with the primary landowners anxious to sell their land and with strong support from the local communities. The park holds a time capsule of untapped scientific knowledge that can help us unravel some of the thorniest environmental questions of our time.

   Among the select few land acquisition needs for which the administration requested funds in its fiscal year 2004 budget request are sensitive lands in Big Thicket National Preserve and at Valley Forge National Historical Park. Land acquisition at Big Thicket is essential to prevent timbering on non-federal lands at the preserve that would endanger the fragile ecosystem of the Big Thicket area. Timber companies are divesting themselves of 1.5 million acres in the surrounding area. Proposed development at Valley Forge National Historical Park threatens an area that once was occupied by the Continental Army during its encampment at Valley Forge in 1777-1778.

   And as the result of the Chairman's initiative, the National Park Service recently acquired 1,406 acres of state lands and mineral interests within the boundary of Grand Teton National Park. In holdings like those in Grand Teton exist throughout the National Park System, and their acquisition by the parks when owners wish to sell them is generally in the strong interest of long-term park preservation.

Serving the New Face of America

   History is not static, but is made every day. The national park system must evolve to remain the "best idea America ever had" and to serve the rapidly changing population of our nation. Unfortunately, America's "ethnic minorities" still remain largely absent from our parks as visitors, employees, contractors, subjects of interpretation and political champions. In 2003, the year that confirmed Hispanics as the largest growing minority in the country, not one of the 388 units that currently make up the national park system honors the legacy of an individual contemporary Latino. The same can be said for Asian Americans and American Indians. For its failure to embrace diversity, this great American idea is at risk of becoming largely irrelevant to half the population at a time when our national parks need the broadest possible constituency to ensure their preservation unimpaired for future generations.

   This worst-case scenario, however, need not come to pass. Surveys demonstrate that Asian, Latino, African American and American Indian people have a great regard for the natural wonders celebrated and preserved in large national parks such as Yosemite and Yellowstone. The Park Service, for its part, is one of the largest curators of Asian, Latino, Indian and African American history and culture. These existing links need to be reinforced and better publicized in order that these natural allies fully support and appreciate one another.

   Thoughtful and judicious expansion of the park system to include new units commemorating our diverse history and culture would provide an even greater opportunity to overcome the relevancy gap that exists between the Park Service and many people of color. The addition of sites commemorating the groundbreaking work of African American scholar Carter G. Woodson and labor rights activist Cesar E. Chavez would be an excellent first step toward better engaging people of color as national park advocates. It's also the right thing to do if we are truly interested in having a national park system that accurately and adequately reflects the many faces of America.

   Some argue that no new national parks should be added until the backlog maintenance concerns currently plaguing the system have been addressed. Furthermore, some have stated the cost of these outstanding concerns is so great that resolving them will prevent us from funding any new units for the national system. The truth is that, over time, adequate funding would enable the Park Service to handle its backlog maintenance and operational needs, serve park visitors, and make prudent additions to the system that celebrate the cultural diversity and honor our common heritage as Americans. In a time where everyone, from NASCAR to Major League Baseball to the Elk's Club, is embracing diversity as way to remain socially relevant, political effective, and economically viable, we cannot afford to tell 47 percent of the population there's no more room in the national park system for your heroes and leaders. Diversity is the strength of our nation and should also be a strength of our national park system.


   Thank you for focusing attention on this important issue today. When national parks are created, most Americans would like to assume they are protected. As you know, the park system faces constant pressure and a significant struggle for resources. NPCA is pleased to be of assistance to the subcommittee as you examine how best to address these challenges and protect our beloved national parks for future generations.


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