Staff shortage threatens system - The lack of personnel is rising to a crisis level, U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks says.
Olympic National Park, WA - At the aging visitor center on Olympic National Park's Hoh River Trail, the park ranger isn't available to help visitors on many days. The staff has shrunk so much that he must fill in as the maintenance worker two days a week scrubbing bathrooms and other areas.
It's just one small example of how personnel cuts are threatening the National Park Service, where washed-out roads and trails aren't fixed, trash piles up, and visitors can spend days without ever seeing a ranger.
To keep the problem from developing into a full-blown crisis, the Bush administration must increase funding to add personnel to maintain the parks and provide services, U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks said Friday.
After a four-day tour of the state's three national parks, Dicks said the only wayto solve the mountainous backlog of maintenance projects, as well as handle everyday duties, is to hire more people.
"This has got to be changed or we're going to see a decline in service at these parks that's unacceptable," said Dicks, who visited the North Cascade, Rainier and Olympic national parks this week.
Dicks took a helicopter tour of Olympic National Park and also drove to its outer reaches. He said increased staffing at that park must be addressed.
Olympic has a full-time staff of 113 permanent and six seasonal workers in 2004. The latter figure is down from 52 in 1994.
Olympic's staff has averaged 115 full-timers over the past 11 years, but has been forced to leave positions vacant when someone leaves or retires. The park was budgeted for 178 positions this year, but doesn't have the money to fill them.
"We're seeing a dramatic decrease in this park's and all national parks' ability to hire suitable and enough personnel to handle all of their challenges," said Heather Weiner, regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association.
This year, Olympic is operating with a $10 million budget. But the conservation association estimates the park needs $6 million more.
In a visit to Seattle last week, Interior Secretary Gale Norton defended the Bush administration's stewardship of the park system. She said the National Park Service's operations budget is $1.8 billion, 20 percent more than when President Bush took office.
Norton, on a nationwide tour to respond to critics of park operations, said her department intends to repair an unspecified number of facilities most in need of maintenance. The Park Service runs more than 28,000 facilities.
But Dicks said those repairs will be difficult without the personnel to perform them.
"Every year, it gets worse and worse," said Dicks, the ranking minority member on the Interior subcommittee. "We've got to somehow stop this because the same is true at Rainier and North Cascades to differing degrees."
Dicks said the reallocation of more than $500 million in maintenance funds to hire more personnel is one avenue he will pursue when he returns to Capitol Hill.
"Hopefully we can create a park account just for operations," he said. "A lot of this can be done by reallocating money in the budget."
A large hit out of parks' budgets comes from cost-of-living increases and homeland security requirements. When the national terrorism alert is elevated to orange, the National Park Service pulls rangers from parks around the nation to guard possible targets, such as the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., or the Statue of Liberty in New York City.
Those funds are covered by the parks where the ranger works and not by the Homeland Security Department.
Dicks said the reduced staffing also results in visitor centers being closed early. Visitors also have limited contact with rangers, the congressman said.
The visitor center at Olympic National Park in Port Angeles closes at 4 p.m. each day. The National Parks Conservation Association also estimated that just 20,000 visitors to the park will see rangers on trails this year compared to 140,000 a decade ago.
In addition, restrooms will not be cleaned 28 days this summer, and trash and mowing duties will be drastically reduced.
If not for volunteers, Dicks said, the national parks would be in a crisis mode.
"They'd be dead now if not for volunteers," he said. "They're surviving on volunteers, and if they didn't have them, this thing would in shambles."
Dicks, running for his 15th term in Congress this fall, said putting more money into the park system will be one of his biggest priorities over the next two years.
"The bottom line is you've got to give them enough of an increase each year to cover these fixed costs," he said. "You've got to give them the money and give them the authority at the local level to decide what they need to do."
Reach reporter Chris Barron at (360) 792-9228 or at email@example.com.
Olympic National Park: Dicks vows to press Congress for more
money for visitor services
OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK -- U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks toured Olympic National Park's visitor centers in Forks and the Hoh Rain Forest, then vowed to press congressional leaders to better fund the park's heavily used and understaffed services.
``I'm going to ask for additional money for park operations,'' Dicks said firmly following an hour-long hike along the Hoh Rain Forest's popular Hall of Mosses and Spruce trails.
There, he saw everything from some of the world's largest trees to maples draped in club moss.
The veteran congressman even pondered a lowly banana slug along the trailside.
Dicks, senior Democrat on the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, said seeing firsthand the needs at Olympic National Park motivates him to press for more funding.
``There is not enough money'' to cover increases in salaries, insurance and fuel costs, Dicks said after meeting with park officials at the administrative offices in Port Angeles.
While shying away from increasing park entry fees -- which Dicks said would not be palatable to the public -- the congressman called for redirecting money for proposed projects to the park system's general funds.
Dicks in recent years has led an effort in Congress to increase resources for staffing, facilities and maintenance of the 387 federally run parks nationwide.
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