Parks Pick-Me-Up?

Conservationists hope economic-stimulus efforts are directed toward national lands

As our National Parks emerge from eight years of pinched budgets, drooping morale and dreadful political appointees, conservationists hope for a turnaround with the Obama administration--even amidst economically turbulent times.

"We recognize there's a zone of opportunity with the transition, with new leadership in the White House, the Department of Interior and in Congress," says David Nimkin, Southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. "But there are also profound financial constraints. So our message and our focus must change accordingly."

The change? Trying to steer economic-stimulus efforts toward the parks, through back-to-work and service programs. It also means highlighting these preserves as sound investments in tough times, given the vital tourism revenue they generate for surrounding communities.

The time for that investment is now, says Nimkin. "There are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of projects that are ready to go--transportation projects, backlogged maintenance projects. They could be part of an overall package to stimulate reinvestment in parks and create jobs.

"But there's also the idea of a modern national parks service corps," he says. "It could be modeled on AmeriCorps." Established under President Bill Clinton, that federal program sends people to work, often in disadvantaged communities, in exchange for college-tuition assistance and other benefits.

Channeling money into such programs won't get any objections from Sarah Craighead, superintendent of Saguaro National Park. "We could do a ton of things with those folks," she says. "If we're going to bail ourselves out, we ought to put people to work in our parks doing it."

But more boots on the ground is just the beginning. Indeed, the thick roster of problems facing our parks was identified in a recent report from Rep. Raúl Grijalva. It catalogues environmental derelictions of the Bush administration, ranging from weakened air-quality standards and Grand Canyon-area uranium mining, to the wholesale slaughter of buffalo in Yellowstone National Park at the behest of area ranchers.

Bush appointees attempted to outsource thousands of Park Service jobs to private contractors, and instituted a political litmus test for civil-service managers. The administration also tried to switch the agency's mission priority from conservation to recreation. Meanwhile, agency managers have moved their parks toward more commercialization and played shell games with budgets. (See "Grim Tally," Currents, Oct. 30.)

Not surprisingly, park advocates now glimpse a chance to reverse those assaults. Nimkin says the strategy is obvious. "What we're saying is this: Can we channel what we know is going to be a priority in the Obama administration--the economy--and link it to crying needs in our national parks?"

In many ways, these needs complement the larger national agenda. For example, Nimkin suggests tying national parks into a cap-and-trade system, which allows low greenhouse-gas polluters to sell carbon-producing credits to big polluters in an effort to reduce overall emissions. "There's also already a program within the Park Service called Climate Friendly Parks," he says, "where the parks themselves can be models and beacons for reducing their carbon footprint. They provide an enormous amount of instruction on how people can make a difference."

In short, "we'd like to find a way of speaking to the challenges parks face in 2009, and what are likely to be priorities for the Obama administration. We'll see how those initiatives can put parks in a prominent place, and deal with some of the longstanding backlog issues and challenges identified in Grijalva's report."

Grijalva chairs the House Subcommittee National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, and he recently sponsored a successful resolution to temporarily close an area near Grand Canyon National Park to uranium mining. This moratorium would give Congress time to decide whether permanent protection is warranted.

But the Bush administration ignored the resolution and allowed uranium companies to keep mining. Then it attempted to permanently pull the longtime congressional authority to issue such moratoriums.

To Nimkin, that points to an obvious need for broader protections. "We should be looking at an overall restriction on all forms of mining and drilling" in national parks, he says. "Right now, we're looking at oil and gas leases up at Canyonlands and Arches and Capitol Reef national parks in Utah. I'm hopeful that we're not going to have those kinds of threats and challenges, and always being on the defensive."

At the end of the day, however, money is still the elephant in the room. "The question," he says, "is how we can fund the conservation priorities we have and not break the budget. We're optimistic, but we're being very realistic, too."

Extra funding could be used to achieve a lot of things right here in Tucson, where Saguaro hopes to expand protection from encroaching development. But like other parks, it has experienced a frustratingly spotty expansion record. For example, in 1991, Congress authorized a 3,913-acre expansion on the east side--but only funded the purchase of about 3,000 acres. And nearly 4,000 acres were approved for the western unit in 1994, but again, Congress only funded the purchase of 2,207 acres. Many of the remaining properties were subsequently developed.

According to Craighead, more money is also needed for less-glamorous goals--such as removing invasive buffelgrass, which costs up to $700 an acre. That also speaks to Saguaro's manpower reserves, already pushed to the limit. "Do we have all the employees we need?" she asks. "No. We could use more employees to do the work that needs to be done in the park. But are we using our employees as effectively and efficiently as possible? Absolutely. We're doing the highest-priority work that needs to be done with the employees that we have."

But she says that boosting the park's budget makes good economic sense. "We have a money-generation model that can tell you the investment in your community from visitation--eating in restaurants, staying in hotels, buying gifts to take home. Then there's the money that the park staff generates in the community. We have 55 to 60 employees, and all those people own houses and buy groceries and send their kids to school."

But like Nimkin, she's a realist. "The next couple of years are going to be hard economically," Craighead says. "Until the economy gets on firm footing, we're not expecting to see increases in funding for any agencies, including the national parks. Still, we know that Saguaro and others will thrive in the future, because people love their national parks. They come to experience solitude and natural quiet. They enjoy walking trails or riding their horses on trails, and getting their spirits renewed. These places are important for us to be able to do that."