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Washington, DC August 24, 2016 – When the hoopla from this week’s centennial fades, the National Park Service will find itself an institution in deepening trouble. Record visitation not only masks but also aggravates a spiral sucking our system of nation parks downward, according to indicators highlighted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Much attention is paid to the National Park Service’s (NPS) mounting maintenance backlog, now nearing $12 billion, or four times its annual operating budget. Less attention is focused on:
- Cratering Morale. In the annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey, the NPS has fallen during the past 10 years from 130th to 259th out of 320 ranked agencies. Just from 2014 to 2015, the Park Service dropped nearly 50 places to the bottom quartile of federal service, scoring lower than all but one Interior agency, the Office of Surface Mining;
- Shrinking Workforce. The NPS has experienced a major loss of permanent positions with fewer employees spread over an increasing number of parks, now numbering 411 units. Over the past decade, the entire NPS workforce shrunk by more than a fifth with losses accelerating. During the 2009-2014 period, the NPS added an average of 501 new positions each year while losing 978. In just 2014, NPS gained only 267 positions while losing nearly 1,100 employees; and
- Planning Abyss. The Park Service does not engage in strategic planning to match its workload with the available workforce, nor does the agency have an overall business plan. Even at the individual park level, management planning required by law has become increasingly rare.
“Beyond worsening infrastructure, workforce and morale shortfalls, the Park Service is suffering from a dire leadership deficit,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to the steady drumbeat of scandal besetting senior Park Service officials. “Our Park Service does not need more cheerleaders but is in desperate need of a competent coach.”
In the face of these chronic and growing strains, the NPS leadership charts even more growth but without reliable plans for supporting it. Centennial legislation to provide more funding is languishing late in the Congressional session. A plan to ramp up corporate donations through expanded naming rights and co-branding campaigns has generated more controversy than actual revenue.
Even its Centennial campaign geared to push park visitation to yet another record this year is rooted in the unrealistic belief that its drive to “create relevancy” will generate “connection/engagement” and “increase support” in the words of a NPS Centennial planning PowerPoint. It is a plan that both veers perilously close to illegal indirect or grassroots lobbying but also has shown little prospect for success.
“By almost all measures, the Park Service is unprepared to face the challenges of its second century,” added Ruch, noting the high-profile ceremonies marking this Thursday’s anniversary date. “When the Centennial celebration ends, the Park Service in the next administration will need to come to grips with the hard choices we have been avoiding.”