Park Service nominee would face morale, crowding challenges

NPS tries to expand cultural profile amid surging demand, tight staffing levels

Acadia National Park in Maine is among those to implement a reservation system because of the pandemic and crowds. (CQ Roll Call photo)
Acadia National Park in Maine is among those to implement a reservation system because of the pandemic and crowds. (CQ Roll Call photo)
Posted August 23, 2021 at 8:30am

The National Park Service that awaits Charles F. "Chuck" Sams III, nominated to be agency director, needs some help.

It was just recovering from the 2019 government shutdown when the coronavirus pandemic hit, closing parks and historic sites and delaying action on a backlog of about $12 billion of repairs. Two years earlier, a federal survey had found more than a third of park service staff experienced sexual harassment monthly or more often. And the department has not had a Senate-confirmed director since January 2017.

Enter Sams, who President Joe Biden will nominate to the post, the White House said last week.

A member of and former executive director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, in Oregon, he would make history as the first Native American to run the 106-year-old agency, if confirmed by the Senate.

He'd also take on an organization trying to expand its cultural and historical profile while also accommodating surging demand at its locations. At the same time, staffing remains stretched, making it difficult to keep up with small tasks in high-demand parks.

“From the inside perspective, it's been a very, very long time since we've had any consistent leadership direction,” Paul Anderson, president of the Association of National Park Rangers, said in an interview.

Visits are again approaching the totals of 2019 of 327 million, after dropping to 237 million last year, a 40-year low. They could surpass the 2019 total if pandemic restrictions ease and foreign travelers return in greater numbers, leading to concerns staff can't keep up.

“There are several thousand less permanent employees in the National Park Service today than they were 10 years ago,” Anderson said, while visitation numbers are only going up.“It's way over 300 million [visits] now, and it's going up tremendously. We have several thousand less employees to help handle it,” he said. “That's a road to disaster.”

Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming had its busiest May ever. Some parks — Acadia in Maine, Zion in Utah, Rocky Mountain in Colorado and Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and Colorado — have implemented reservation systems due to the pandemic and crowds, said Dana Soehn, an agency spokesperson.

It is “becoming increasingly challenging in our most popular parks” to make sure visitors have “enjoyable experiences,” Michael T. Reynolds, a regional director of the agency overseeing Western states, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources National Parks Subcommittee last month.

“We can accidentally love our parks to death,” said Sen. Angus King, the Maine independent who is chair of the panel.

Visits this year are increasing “throughout most” of the park system, Reynolds said. But there is considerable traffic at a fraction of the agency’s 423 sites.

“About half of all our recreation visits are occurring at only the top 23 most-visited parks, with significant congestion conditions concentrated in the most popular 12 to 15 destination parks,” he said.

Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, Zion, Rocky Mountain and Grand Teton national parks were the five most-visited national parks in 2020, followed by Grand Canyon, Cuyahoga Valley, Acadia, Olympic and Joshua Tree, according to park service figures.

Meanwhile, the service has increased staffing to 19,000 employees who work on a full-time equivalent basis, according to Soehn. That's up 1,000 workers from last year but down from a recent peak of 22,211 in 2010. Reynolds acknowledged the demands on staff at the hearing.

“There is a lot of care and healing that we need to do and support to make sure our employees are staying mentally fit,” he said. “We ask them to do a lot.”

Parking lots

A 2020 survey by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service and Boston Consulting Group found the park service ranked 353rd of 411 government agencies in the “Best Places to Work” category.

“Getting paid in rainbows and sunsets, as they say, is wonderful, but there are a lot of problems facing those 20,000 plus park service employees,” Kati Schmidt, a spokeswoman for National Parks Conservation Association.

Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs with the NPCA, warned at a House hearing in early 2020 that morale was low. “With inadequate staff, national parks are getting crushed," she said.

This year, fights have broken out over parking spots, waste has built up and staff are often pulled from their regular jobs to pinch-hit on other tasks, she said in an interview last month.

“You might be working on a trail crew but because you’re needed to clean bathrooms, that’s what your job ends up being,” Brengel said.

She said parts of Yosemite National Park struggle daily to keep bathrooms clean. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is well known to locals for its sanitation problems.

On a recent trip to Wyoming, Jordan Schreiber, senior director for policy, advocacy and government relations with the Trust for Public Land, said friends had just toured Grand Tetons National Park with the park head.

“And they talked about bathrooms, the whole time, because that's what you do,” Schreiber said. “You just go up to hikers and say ‘How are the bathrooms?’ And they're like, ‘They're disgusting. There are so many people here.’”

Many parks are under such pressure from foot traffic, the agency may have to make significant changes to curtail access, Schreiber said.

“I think to a certain extent we're loving them to death, and drastic measures do need to be taken,” Schreiber said. “There's a lot of very boring policy solutions to this like limiting the number of cars that can come in, doing shuttles that are based on reservations and therefore just slowing down the number of people.”

Funding boost?

The House-passed fiscal 2022 Interior-Environment appropriations bill would give the park service $3.5 billion, $28 million less than the White House requested and $324 million more than current spending levels. The Senate Appropriations Committee has not yet written its version.

Anderson said there would be a lag time in getting rangers out in the field even if Congress provides a significant bump in funding.

“Even if there was tens of millions of dollars in additional funding for staffing in the parks coming on in October, it would take us at the present rate more than a year to fill those positions,” he said.

Founded in 1916 with a dual mission of conservation and preservation, the park service is also under pressure to bolster its historical education chops. After the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last year, its role in documenting America’s racial history came into public view, with a push from Congress to withdraw Confederate monuments from all Interior Department lands, including Civil War battlefields the government oversees.

“The park service in all of its history,” said Mike Allen, who started with the agency in 1980 and worked at historical sites in South Carolina, “really is needed now.”

By federal law, the park service is required to work with tribes to help maintain cultural and historical lands and resources. “The fact that we’ve nominated a Native American for this role is profound,” said David Lamfrom, vice president of regional programs for NPCA. “NPS is not simply a manager of lands. It’s a manager of stories.”