National parks struggle with higher costs |

National parks struggle with higher costs

WASHINGTON – America’s national parks are increasingly cutting back on visitor services, education programs and protections for natural and cultural resources in a losing bid to keep pace with rising operating costs, congressional investigators said Wednesday.The Government Accountability Office report painted a troubling picture of the parks’ financial health, despite a series of Bush administration spending increases for them.The GAO studied 12 of the most highly visited of the 390 national parks, historic sites, battlefields, recreation areas and other places managed by the National Park Service. Each year the parks receive a total of about 270 million visitors.Park managers at the 12 sites said they couldn’t stretch their budgets to cover higher salaries and benefits and utility costs and also comply with orders to spend more on maintenance and maintain law enforcement levels.”As a result, park unit managers reported that, to varying degrees, they made trade-offs” by cutting in other areas, the report said. Those include:-Closing the Loft Mountain visitor center in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park last year, ending interpretive nature services in the south end of the park.-Cutting staff for nature interpretive services and conducting fewer Indian art tours in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park.-Reducing backcountry law enforcement patrols in Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park to prevent illegal poaching of wildlife and other resources.-Decreasing law enforcement officers and emergency dispatchers at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, threatening the park’s ability to provide around-the-clock 911 services.-Winter closures of all seven restrooms along roads and trailheads in Maine’s Acadia National Park.Matthew Hogan, the Interior Department’s acting assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, said the report gives “a misleading impression that park operational funding has not been emphasized over the past five years.””Record high levels of funds are being invested to staff and improve our parks,” he wrote in an official response to the report. “Over time, the national parks have received significantly more funding increases than most nondefense government programs.”Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said the GAO report “confirms that America’s national parks are losing ground, and straining to survive with shrinking budgets.”Between 2001 and 2005, the Park Service’s annual operating budgets climbed from $1.4 billion to $1.7 billion. Meanwhile, fees collected from visitors have been rising about 1 percent a year.After inflation adjustments, the operating budget increases have amounted to just 1.3 percent, or about $18 million, a year, the GAO said.The Congressional Research Service a year ago estimated that the deferred maintenance backlog in the parks stood at anywhere between $4.5 billion and $9.7 billion. President Bush in his 2000 campaign promised to eliminate a backlog that then was put at $4.9 billion.Vail, Colorado

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