Park Service Unable to Detail Maintenance Needs
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, July 8, 2003 (ENS) - It will take the Park Service another three years to determine the full extent of the maintenance backlog across the 388 units of the national park system, Park Service Deputy Director Donald Murphy told the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks today. The agency's most recent estimate puts the backlog at some $5 billion, but that figure is based on limited data and could range from $4 billion to $6.8 billion.
The estimate of the maintenance backlog is "a moving target" that is not based on any reliable inventory, said Barry Hill, director of Natural Resources and Environmental Issues at the General Accounting Office.
Murphy says the agency is currently assessing and implementing a new system that will enable it to identify and prioritize all of the maintenance needs within the national parks, but it will not be fully operational until the end of fiscal year 2006.
"This program never existed before and it is not until it is fully implemented that we will get a handle on what the maintenance backlog is," Murphy said.
The system being implemented, Murphy said, is in use at the Department of Defense and other agencies and is "state of the art."
The implementation of this system appears to be on track and is a step in the right direction, Hill said, as the Park Service has historically done a very poor job of tracking maintenance needs in the national park system.
Another moving target is the amount the Bush administration has spent to address the maintenance backlog. Murphy touted a report released last week by the administration that said it had spent $2.9 billion to reduce the $5 billion backlog.
But Murphy acknowledged that "roughly $200 million to $300 million" of the $2.9 billion was new money above appropriations earmarked for annual maintenance.
The administration is making real progress, Murphy told the subcommittee, citing some 900 completed maintenance jobs in the past two years and 500 currently underway.
New units in the park system are placing further weight on the overburdened agency, Murphy added. There have been 14 new units added in the past five years - 11 by Congress and three by President Bill Clinton.
"It is our position that we need to slow the growth of the national park system," Murphy said.
That view is shortsighted at best, said Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).
Kiernan's 350,000 member nonprofit organization, established in 1919, has been sharply critical of the Bush administration's stewardship of the national parks. Although he praised the inventorying effort, Kiernan says the administration and Congress must find more money to upkeep and safeguard the national park system.
In the last three years the total Park Service budget has only increased on average by one percent, Kiernan said, whereas at end of the 1990s it was increasing at an annual rate of nine percent.
"The national park system tells truly the American story and the values that we stand for," Kiernan testified. "These need to be among the highest funding priorities of this country at this time."
The Park Service will never be able to significantly reduce the maintenance backlog unless it receives additional annual operating dollars, said Eric Dillinger, vice president of facilities management services at Carter and Burgess.
"The ability to draw it down to zero is tied to the ability to fund maintenance appropriately to stem the inflow," Dillinger said.
On average, U.S. national parks are operating with only two-thirds of the needed funding, according to the NPCA, which believes the Park Service needs $600 million more annually to adequately manage the national park system.
"More money is always to the solution for everything," said Subcommittee Chairman Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican. "There has to be some attention given to how you better spend the money you have."
The administration and the Congress, however, often give the Park Service more responsibilities without additional funding.
For example, funds have been diverted from maintenance projects to pay for the administration's outsourcing studies, estimated to cost a total of $2.5 million to $3 million. In addition, the Bush administration has not provided additional funds the costs of Homeland Security.
Each day the nation is under the Homeland's Code Orange alert, the agency must pay an additional $66,500 in security costs for nine sites designated as critical infrastructure; funds that must be siphoned off from elsewhere in the agency's budget.
"We need to ensure we do not offset money from existing operation accounts to increase the scorecard on maintenance," said Senator Daniel Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat. "The Park Service must have the ability to accomplish its primary mission to protect and preserve our irreplaceable natural, cultural, and historic treasures."
Congress and the administration need to remember that maintenance is more than roads and buildings, Kiernan told the subcommittee.
"There is a very important and significant backlog of natural resource protection projects," he said.
For example, 20 percent of plant and animal species in Shenandoah National Park are non native and need to be removed, and only 10 percent of the estimated 100,000 plant and animal species within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been identified.
"It is easy to focus on those aspects that are superficial, visible such as the maintenance backlog and the condition of the roads and building," Kiernan said. "Natural resource protection, cultural resource protection and protecting those core elements of the parks for which they were founded should be the highest priority."