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Nonprofits ponder role in National Parks funding

Nonprofits ponder role in National Parks funding

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WEST GLACIER - Ten years ago, Curt Buchholtz could not have imagined building an outhouse for the National Park Service.

But last year, he did just that.

"It's a nice outhouse," he said. "Doesn't smell at all."

Likewise, buying emergency defibrillators for park rangers would have been unthinkable a decade back, Buchholtz said, but, as with the outhouse, he delivered.

Buchholtz is executive director of the Rocky Mountain Nature Association, a friend-of-the-park group partnered with Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Many of America's national parks are partnered with a friends group, a nonprofit that helps put the financial icing on the government's appropriation cake.

The partnerships, though, have changed dramatically in recent years, he said, especially since the Bush administration moved into the White House.

A decade back, Buchhlotz couldn't have imagined building an outhouse or buying life-safety equipment, because to do so would have sent the message that the government - Congress and the National Park Service - could not afford the most basics of basics.

"And that message was unacceptable," Buchholtz said.

Now, it seems, no one bats an eye at the implication that government cannot pay the bills for life-safety equipment in public parks. Now park managers actually approach friends groups with requests for equipment such as defibrillators.

Now the nation's parks operate with a combined $600 million shortfall each year, and are saddled with a maintenance backlog estimated at nearly $6 billion.

"Now we'll do what the park needs," Buchholtz said. "That's what friends are for. If it comes down to it, we'll do the icing and we'll do the cake, too."

But not everyone in the world of park philanthropy is so accommodating. And some wonder if nonprofits are helping, or harming, parks.

"This is a topic that those of us who run friends' groups think about all the time nowadays," said Ken Olson, who runs Friends of Acadia, in Maine. Olson also sits on the board of a coalition of friends groups from around the country, the National Park Friends Alliance.

"When all this started," he said of philanthropy in the parks, "our mission was to supplement, rather than replace, federal budgets. But the reality today is philanthropic money is going to programs government should be paying for."

The friends groups, he likes to say, are there to provide the "margin of excellence, not the margin of survival."

At Acadia, Olson's group is careful to give only to park programs that haven't seen base-level cuts to operating budgets. But that's getting tougher, he said, as deeper and deeper cuts become more widespread.

"I believe we've reached the tipping point," Olson said.

That is to say, the parks have reached the point where, without private donations, they can no longer operate and provide basic services.

A half-dozen years ago, Olson sat down and tallied all the money friends groups donated annually to America's national parks. It was enough to operate 20 Acadias.

Philanthropy has a long and successful history in the national parks, Olson said, and remains vitally important on many levels.

But the amount of the donations has gone through the roof in recent years, he said. And during that same time, the percentage of park-budget needs paid for by Congress has dropped through the floor.

Some say all the giving has let Congress off the hook, that lawmakers respond to more giving by appropriating less. Others say congressional cuts have driven the push for more donations.

Likely, Olson said, it's a bit of both. But no matter if the chicken produced the egg or the other way around, the fact is Olson and others worry that the trend is not sustainable, that donors will get fed up with Congress not honoring its part of the bargain.

Already, Buchholtz has received a letter from a "major donor" who said that the park could have his money, but only with the promise that the program he was giving to would not face any base budget cuts.

That sort of donor backlash puts park superintendents in a tough position. They already are stretched thin, already have unfunded mandates from Congress such as homeland security measures, already have budgetary "sacred cows" that the law protects from cuts.

When a donor effectively creates yet another sacred cow, park managers are harder pressed still to figure out how to creatively do more with less.

At the national level, Olson said, and at the local level, Buchholtz agreed, conversations have begun regarding the proper role of friends groups relative to the proper role of the public treasury.

"We're wondering whether we need to switch from big, showy bricks-and-mortar projects to more of the basic maintenance projects, or basic educational operations," Buchholtz said. "The reality is, the job is bigger than the government can afford. These parks will never be fully funded by Congress."

They never have been, Olson said, as donations to national parks are as old as the parks themselves. But, he said, the scales are tipping further toward the private sector, and although the public can't ask for full funding, it can ask for funding that at least covers basic operations - toilets and life-safety equipment, for example.

"There's a lot of clamor right now among groups related to parks," said retiree Bill Wade. "And there should be. If Congress doesn't get a grip, then they're going to jeopardize the whole public-private partnership."

Wade retired a few years back as superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, and now keeps busy with the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. The group boasts thousands of members, with millennia of combined experience. They include ranger foot soldiers, as well as 95 former superintendents or deputy superintendents, 91 associate or assistant directors or division chiefs at the regional or national level, 19 former regional directors or deputy directors, and five former directors or deputy directors of the National Park Service.

In other words, "we're the leaders who ran the system, from the top down," Wade said.

And according to Wade, all in the group are worried about the lack of congressional funding for parks and the privatization doors that opens.

When private partnerships began, he said, "everyone said, 'great, this will augment, supplement, make us better.' But now, in many parks, it's a necessity for day-to-day operations. There's a backlash starting. The donors are beginning to resent it a little bit. It makes it tougher to recruit volunteers and donors."

In Montana's Glacier National Park, there used to be rangers in flat-brimmed hats on the train between East Glacier and West Glacier. There used to be multi-day ranger-led naturalist hikes into the backcountry.

Now all that's history, and the park has left the assistant superintendent's job vacant because of budget concerns.

And the local friends group buys the defibrillators.

"Congress couldn't do a better job of killing the charitable spirit if it tried," Wade said.

Actually, he said, it could. There have been moves in recent years to "outsource" federal park jobs to private corporations, and that effort is expected to be revitalized by the White House in coming months.

One of the operations being considered for outsourcing is maintenance, and at one park - Washington's Mount Rainier - the local volunteer group already has said that if the feds go, so do the freebies.

"They're willing to volunteer for the public," Wade said, "but they're not going to volunteer for some corporation. If the private company wants help, they figure it can give them a paid job."

And that gets straight to the heart of the matter. People give to individual parks because they love those parks, but they also give because they believe in the idea of parks. That idea - of public land owned by the public, maintained by the public, shared by the public - is the idea that drives the philanthropy.

"It's getting pretty scary," Wade said. "It's absolutely unprecedented, the degree to which government is giving up its role to the private sector."

The signs are everywhere:

Corporate logos on the back of Glacier Park's historic red bus fleet. Signs dedicating park visitor centers in the name of the company that gave the most. The St. Louis Arch bathed in pink light to raise money and attention for a charitable cause.

The National Park Foundation, the friends group to the National Park System, doesn't link to many national parks from its Web site. But it does link to American Airlines, to Discovery Communications, Ford Motor Co. and Kodak. There are partnerships with soda pop companies and pharmaceutical companies, light bulb companies and energy companies.

"What's next?" Wade wondered, "a corporate logo shining on George Washington's forehead at Mount Rushmore? We have to start asking where the line is going to be drawn."

But the problem, Olson said, is the line itself is becoming blurry. Park entrance fee money - designated for visitor services - is being bled off to pay for homeland security mandates. Private donations are being bled off to pay for basic operations.

"We're sapping volunteer motivation by doing that," Olson said. "Yes, we need the help of donors, private and corporate alike, and that's great. But we also need Congress to keep its end of this bargain. We can't cross the line, turning parks into advertising and marketing tools."

There must, he said, be a "sharp bright line between budgets and charity, and it has to be drawn at park operations."

The very fact that donors are so generous with the parks, Buchholtz said, should be (and sometimes is) evidence to lawmakers that the parks ought to enjoy considerable public support. That is often the case, at least with regard to individual congressional members and their local parks.

Montana's delegation has delivered considerable sums of money for Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, for instance, but Wade says too much comes in the form of "park pork."

That's money slipped through on riders to bigger bills, special money for special projects in special parks pushed through without any real study or review.

Paying for Glacier's Going-to-the-Sun Road reconstruction is important, Wade said, but the discussion should be put through the process - from the park-project authorizing committee, through appropriations, to the floor. That way, he said, projects are compared with one another, priorities are set and money is spent where it is most immediately needed.

"The general fund money has become special fund money," he said, "and individual congressmen give it to their pet projects. We can't continue to operate like that."

Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at

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