Driving through the gold-brown savanna of Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, past its Dr. Seuss-like trees and water-carved rocks, it's easy to see why the national parks have been called America's Best Idea.
Spend a few hours with some of the park's employees, like Cultural Resources Branch Chief Jason Theuer, and you'll see that national parks are also another thing: expensive. There is a nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog of work that needs be done but isn't because of limited money.
Theuer's job is to preserve and maintain some of the historical structures here-- sites like Keys Ranch, the sprawling high-desert homestead deep in Joshua Tree's interior. The ranch's schoolhouse, which is about 80 years old, looks like it was cobbled together with salvaged materials. There are no studs keeping the walls straight and upright, so now there's as much light pouring in through the warped wooden-plank walls as there is through the windows.
"We came in and added all of these supports here," Theuer says, pointing to a beefy frame built up against the building's interior. Without it, it's hard to imagine the building standing up to a good sneeze.
The wooden frame and the expertise to install it were expensive, Theuer says. To keep buildings like this standing and to keep them as historically accurate as possible requires structural and architectural analyses, historical preservationists and period experts as well as raw materials and construction crews. In total, Theuer estimates the annual cost of keeping this schoolhouse standing is $35,000 to $40,000.
The schoolhouse is one of a number of structures at Keys Ranch. There's a two-story house, a guesthouse, a work shed, a windmill, tractors and wagons — all of which need upkeep.
So how much does it cost to maintain and preserve Keys Ranch for visitors? It's hard to say exactly — and it really doesn't matter, Theuer says, "because that money doesn't exist in the National Park Service."
An Expanding Backlog
Joshua Tree National Park is so expensive to maintain that for years, the park's management has had to put off big projects because it hasn't had the money to take them on.
"Here at Joshua Tree, we have about $60 million in backlog maintenance," says David Smith, the park's superintendent. "And to put that in perspective, our annual operating budget at this park is a little over $6 million."
Entrance fees and donations from local groups bring in millions of dollars more, but Smith says it's nowhere near what's needed to start chipping away at that backlog. And the longer it takes to address some of those issues, the more expensive they're going to get.
Roads are a big part of that backlog. Many of the park's roads were built almost a century ago when the area was still being drilled and mined for gold. "Now we have bus-size RVs and SUVs driving on them. It tears them up," Smith says. Given time, a crack in a road can become a pothole; potholes can lead to washed-out roads during the next flash flood.
"As a homeowner, you take care of your house," Smith says. You clean out the gutters and maintain the pipes. "If you don't take care of your house, it falls apart."
Then there's the visitor center at the south end of the park, which sees tens of thousands of tourists a year. It's a double-wide trailer; it sits on top of a fault line and isn't properly fitted. "The fault goes right under my office," Smith says.
There's also the fact that despite having a record 2 million visitors last year, Joshua Tree didn't have the money to hire more rangers, janitors or emergency rescuers to help them out. "I was just listening to the radio, and we have volunteers responding to an incident at a high point in the park because we don't have staff to respond to that incident," he says.
The net result, Smith says, is that "we don't have enough money to provide the level of service the public expects."
'I Need About Twice As Much Money'
Joshua Tree National Park, like most of the 409 areas managed by the National Park Service, gets the bulk of its money from Congress. It's appropriated year by year, and in recent years usually comes to about $3 billion annually. Entrance fees, philanthropy and concession sales bring in more money to the park system, but National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis says it's not enough. That much money may have covered the tab for the park system years ago, but not anymore.
When the money's tight, some jobs don't get done — and those jobs start to pile up. Today, the total backlog of needed maintenance at U.S. national parks is $11.9 billion. That backlog includes $500 million in needed repairs at Yosemite National Park, $100 million of which is considered critical. Grand Canyon National Park needs $330 million, due largely to outstanding wastewater and water system upgrades. The Blue Ridge Parkway, which saw a record 15 million visitors last year, needs $478 million to help address the wear and tear from all of those drivers.
"I need about twice as much money as I currently get to address our maintenance backlog," Jarvis says.
He's hopeful that Congress will hear his plight and appropriate more money to the National Park Service, pointing out that the new five-year highway transportation bill includes $1.4 billion for roads and bridges in national parks and that President Obama is asking Congress to appropriate more money, using the Park Service's centennial as a reason. That highway money won't come close to addressing the need, though, and Obama's proposals have been met with resistance, leading people like Holly Fretwell, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center and an economics professor at Montana State University, to say that people need to be realistic about the funding situation.
"There's no way that Congress is going to appropriate enough funding to make up this total deferred maintenance backlog," she says. They don't have an additional $3 billion to give, she says, and the national parks aren't that big of a priority.
Fretwell says the current and traditional system of funding the national parks is broken. "We have to do something different," Fretwell says. "There's no question, because we are losing the quality of our national parks."
Funding For The Future
Fretwell has a few ideas.
One is to limit the expansion of the National Park Service. It's not popular with those who want to see more areas protected and preserved, but Fretwell says it doesn't make sense for the Park Service to bring in more sites and areas when it can't maintain what it already has.
Expansions are "thinning the blood" of the park system, says James Ridenour, a former director of the National Park Service, because they take needed funds away from some parks and distribute them to others.
Fretwell says another idea is to look more seriously at public-private partnerships, where the Park Service still owns the land and sets the rules but a private company or entrepreneur runs the day-to-day operations. "They are a firm, they are a business, they generate profits, and their goal is to manage for a good-quality product like a firm somewhere else," she says.
Most of Arizona's state parks are managed by a private company called Recreation Resource Management. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas is owned by the National Park Service but jointly managed and funded by The Nature Conservancy.
Still, Fretwell says she knows that people are uncomfortable with the idea of a private company running the national parks. She hears it from her own friends: It's going to turn into Disneyland. They're going to charge us $1,000 a day.
Fretwell says that wouldn't be the case, because the National Park Service would still set the rules and because putting a roller coaster in Yellowstone National Park wouldn't be good business. That's not why millions of people visit.
It's not a perfect solution to the funding issue, Fretwell says, but it's unlikely that a cure-all solution exists. It'll likely be a mix of appropriations, fees, endowments, sponsorships and public-private partnerships.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The National Park Service turns 100 this year.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And it is a moment of celebration. The Service maintains everything from Yosemite Valley to the battlefield at Gettysburg.
INSKEEP: This is also a moment of challenge. The parks are popular, which means they are crowded.
MONTAGNE: They takes money to keep up and deferred maintenance has run into the billions of dollars.
INSKEEP: So this week we are examining the Park Service at 100. NPR's Nathan Rott starts by asking how we pay for the parks.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: You've heard it. I've heard it. The national parks are America's best idea. And driving through the gold-brown savanna of Joshua Tree National Park, past its Dr. Seuss-like trees and wind-carved rocks, it's hard to argue.
Gosh, it's pretty.
JASON THEUER: Yeah, man, this low-angle light is my favorite out here.
ROTT: But the national parks are also another thing, which is what Jason Theuer is here to show us.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR OPENING)
ROTT: Theuer is in charge of Cultural Resources here at Joshua Tree, which means he doesn't deal as much with the trees or the rocks...
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
ROTT: ...But the historic buildings.
THEUER: Are we going to be able to go in here? Come on.
ROTT: Like this old schoolhouse at a place called Keys Ranch.
THEUER: Now, this is something that we call vernacular architecture, which is they sort of made due with what they had.
ROTT: (Laughter). I'm laughing because the building looks like it could go down with a good sneeze. There's more light pouring in to the cracks in the warped wooden-plank walls than there is through the windows.
THEUER: So we came in and added all these supports here.
ROTT: Theuer points to a beefy wooden frame built up against the walls.
How much does it cost to keep a building like this standing every year?
THEUER: Ballpark looking at this, 35, 40 grand - pretty quickly, too. That money can go pretty quick.
ROTT: Between hiring contractors and historic preservationists and the like. Granted, Theuer says, costs change every year depending on what needs done and what's been done. But still, that's 40 grand for just one building here at Keys Ranch - nevermind the house up the hill, the guest house, the work shed...
THEUER: The tractors, the wagons over here.
ROTT: ...The windmill or the historical oddity that is the outhouse.
THEUER: We have had our historical structure people from the region say they have never before seen a two-seater.
THEUER: Yeah, that's side-by-side.
ROTT: Just when you can't stand to be alone.
THEUER: Exactly, you want to have a little company.
ROTT: Potty humor aside, the point is there are a lot of buildings here that the Park Service is tasked with protecting and maintaining. And it costs a lot of money to do that. How much money exactly? Theuer says it doesn't really matter.
THEUER: 'Cause that much money doesn't exist in the National Park Service.
ROTT: Joshua Tree National Park, like most of our national parks, is a great idea. It's beautiful beyond words. Its structures and sites tell the history of the West. But Joshua Tree National Park is also expensive to maintain.
DAVID SMITH: Here at Joshua Tree, we have about $16 million in backlog maintenance.
ROTT: David Smith is the superintendent here at Joshua Tree.
SMITH: And to put that in perspective, our annual operating budget for this park is just a little bit over $6 million.
ROTT: Which means that $60 million backlog of potholed roads and flood damage trails, crumbling campgrounds and leaking pipes isn't getting any smaller. Nor are there more rangers, janitors or emergency rescuers to deal with the record crowds.
SMITH: To be honest, we don't have enough money to provide the level of service the public expects.
ROTT: Joshua Tree, like most of the 409 areas managed by the National Park Service, gets the bulk of its money from Congress. It's appropriated year-by-year.
JONATHAN JARVIS: Like to say we're a perpetuity organization on an annual appropriation.
ROTT: That's Jonathan Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service. That appropriated money, Jarvis says, usually comes to about $3 billion a year for the entire Park Service. Sounds like a lot - right? - $3 billion. Well, it's not - at least not in terms of what's needed. Parks are expensive for a lot of the reasons you'd think. Visitor centers need displays and millions of drivers means damaged roads. But there are also other costs you wouldn't automatically think about - expensive ones - like the three sewage operations at Grand Canyon or the sprinkler system at Independence Hall. Jarvis says when you think of the park system as a whole...
JARVIS: It's like a city of 4 million except the population turns over every couple days.
ROTT: So when the money is tight, some jobs just don't get done. And those jobs start to pile up. Today the total backlog of needed maintenance at our national parks is nearly $12 billion.
JARVIS: I need about twice as much money as I currently get to address our maintenance backlog.
ROTT: But what are the odds of that actually happening? Jarvis is hopeful for his part. He points out that Congress did give more money to the Park Service this year for its centennial. Holly Fretwell, on the other hand, is not. She's a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center and an economics professor at Montana State University. And she's been studying this whole funding of the national parks and public lands for decades.
HOLLY FRETWELL: There's no way that Congress is going to appropriate enough funding to make up this total deferred maintenance backlog. That's not going to happen.
ROTT: Congress just doesn't have $3 billion laying around. And the parks aren't that big of a priority, which means, Fretwell says, people need to realize that the current traditional system of funding national parks is broken.
FRETWELL: We have to do something different. There is no question because we are losing the quality of our parks.
ROTT: Now, Fretwell has some ideas on how to change the status quo - ideas I heard echoed from other people, as well - like limiting the expansion of the Park Service in the future, the thought being that every new park or expansion thins out the money for the rest. Another...
FRETWELL: One is just looking more seriously at public-private partnerships.
ROTT: Agreements where the Park Service still owns the land and sets the rules but a private company or entrepreneur runs the operations.
FRETWELL: They are a firm. They are a business. They generate profits. And their goal is to manage for a good quality product just like a firm somewhere else would be.
ROTT: OK, I know what you're probably thinking - a private company running a national park?
FRETWELL: It's going to turn into a Disneyland or they're going to charge us, you know, a thousand dollars a day.
ROTT: Fretwell says the Park Service would have the ability to set the rules and stop that from happening. But still, back at Joshua Tree I asked the question to Jason Theuer, our archaeologist from earlier, what does he think of the idea of privatizing parts of the National Park Service?
THEUER: Well, you know, I think before that point there is just something in terms of our own internal structure adopting more of a business model into the way we function.
THEUER: It will be very interesting to see I think over the next 10 years or so, we're going to know how it all works out and what it looks like.
ROTT: Why 10 years?
THEUER: We're getting fewer resources, and resources and backlog are only deteriorating in condition.
ROTT: So in 10 years the problem is only going to be a whole lot worse. Nathan Rott, NPR news. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.