Fewer funds, more visitors hurt national parks?

By Lee Davidson and Stephen Speckman
Deseret News

Published: Saturday, April 26 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

The visitor center at Dinosaur National Monument as it was in 1962.

Deseret Morning News archives

It's no wonder that Dinosaur National Monument, on the Utah-Colorado border, now has the worst visitor satisfaction ratings in the entire National Park Service — disappointing news disclosed during the current National Parks Week.

For two years, its world-famous visitor center — enclosing a cliff where 1,500 dinosaur bones in the rock were carefully exposed — has been closed as unsafe. It slowly split apart over years atop unstable soils. When and if money for renovation or reconstruction may be available is unclear. The center was the park's main attraction.

Budgets this year also eliminated the jobs of a geologist and museum technician. Sometimes other problems occurred, such as when phones at a temporary visitor center allowed workers to call out but no one could call in.

Such erosion could be a sign of the future for all the National Park Service if trends spotted in a Deseret News analysis continue. The newspaper looked at five years of National Park Service data on budgets, visitation and satisfaction surveys, from 2003 through 2007.

The analysis shows that visitation to parks is up nationally, creating more pressure on them. But the number of "full-time equivalent" employees is down, providing fewer services and less care despite the visitor growth. And increases in operations budgets at most parks are not keeping pace with inflation.

The same trends appear at the 13 units in Utah but are more extreme. Visitation is up more than the national average. Cuts in full-time equivalents are deeper than average. And operations budgets are falling further behind inflation than average.

"Are the parks in good condition? The best answer I can give is that discussion about that in the park service has many opinions," says National Park Service headquarters spokesman Jeffrey Olson.

"We still have far to go. But budget problems may have bottomed out a few years ago," he said, possibly ending when President Bush launched a drive to spruce up parks before the agency's centennial in 2016.

This week, proclaimed as National Park Week by Bush (and a long "week" at that: April 19-27), the administration announced the first $50 million in public-private matching grants in the president's "Centennial Challenge." It included some money for an artist-in-residence program in Utah's Zion National Park and for a youth program in Cedar Breaks National Monument.

Olson said that a few years ago, anecdotes were common about services in the parks being cut deeper every year. But now, amid more budget attention for parks for the centennial, he said more park administrators are starting to talk about adding or expanding services. The Deseret News found this to be true among several superintendents in Utah.

Troubling trends

The newspaper's analysis of national park data shows some troubling trends. In short, visitors may be loving the parks to death while the agency is cutting back on full-time employees and its budgets fall behind inflation.

The News found that between 2003 and 2007, recreational visits to parks nationally increased by 3.6 percent. But "full-time equivalents" of employees were cut by 2 percent.

Park-level operations budgets nationally did increase by an average of 11.6 percent in those five years. But that was lower than the 12.7 percent combined rate of inflation.

The situation was more extreme in Utah.

Visitation at its 13 sites increased 4.3 percent overall in that time. But full-time equivalents were cut by 6.6 percent, almost twice as deeply as the national average.

Meanwhile, park-level operations budgets in Utah increased overall by only 9 percent, well below the national average and the rate of inflation.

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