The Next Century of National Park Service Funding

As the agency in charge of national parks celebrates its centennial, a paradigm shift in funding strategies will define the path forward for America’s best idea

By Tristan Scott
Many Glacier Hotel on July 3, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

At noon on Oct. 1, 2013, Larry Ladd parked his pickup at the west entrance of Glacier National Park and reset the trip odometer, clocking a 2,589-mile cross-country journey from his home in Arkansas.

Stepping out of his truck, the retired federal employee shook his head in disbelief – not at the astronomical distance he and his wife had covered, but at the gated barricade informing them that, “because of the federal government shutdown, this National Park Service facility is closed.”

In light of the closure, the Ladds did what nearly 2,000 other prospective visitors were forced to do that crisp autumn day at Glacier Park – they turned around.

The Ladds’ vacation plans had been waylaid by a government shutdown that brought most federal agencies, including the National Park Service, to a grinding halt because of Congress’ inability to reach a budget deal that year. The crestfallen couple’s disappointment underscored the century-long connection to what Wallace Stegner famously called “America’s Best Idea,” but it also highlighted the disconnect between the Park Service’s popularity and critical role in conservation and the government’s failure to adequately fund it.

“As an old man I have a bucket list, and seeing Glacier National Park and driving that road to the sun are on it,” said Ladd, 67. “Congress is shirking its duties, and lawmakers just aren’t doing their job. I have high hopes that I’ll get back to see that beautiful chunk of country before I’m too far gone, but I don’t have forever.”

As it enters its second century this summer, the National Park Service may not have forever, either. Park managers are preparing for another year of record-breaking crowds while relying on a funding structure that is significantly below what it was a decade ago when adjusted for inflation. Meanwhile, crumbling infrastructure and maintenance needs, coupled with daily operational costs, are stressing a base budget that is outmoded to meet the public’s needs.

Forever seems a long ways away. Yet as Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow is fond of saying, “We are in the forever business.”

Less than a month before the government shutdown forced Mow to take a 16-day furlough nearly three years ago, he arrived in the Flathead Valley and took the reins as Glacier Park’s new superintendent. Rather than let himself be discouraged by the federal government’s shortcomings, he pledged to forge ahead and work within the constraints of a future characterized by climate change, overcrowding and underfunding. He began mapping out a plan of collaboration, partnership and engagement.

But he acknowledged the challenges that lie ahead, and that many long-delayed projects are going neglected.

In a stroke of serendipity, within three days of Mow’s arrival in Northwest Montana, Mark Preiss landed as the fresh new face to helm the park’s largest private fundraising arm, the newly formed Glacier National Park Conservancy.

In 2013, the Glacier National Park Conservancy was born of a merger between the Glacier National Park Fund and Glacier Park Association, and the productivity of that merger is already evident.

Ever since, Mow and Preiss have worked closely as a leadership team to develop a blueprint to navigate a reality in which the National Park Service’s reliance on Congressional appropriations is offset by innovative strategies, including an evolving model for public-private partnerships, at a time when record numbers of visitors are converging on America’s parks.

Going-to-the-Sun Road shuttle at Logan Pass on July 3, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Going-to-the-Sun Road shuttle at Logan Pass on July 3, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

In 2015, the conservancy fund supported 23 projects in Glacier at a cost of $1.27 million. This year the fund has already pledged $1.12 million to support 34 projects, including extending the boardwalk on the Hidden Lake Trail, preserving the historic Wheeler Cabin on Lake McDonald and rebuilding the historic double-helix staircase at the Many Glacier Hotel.

But those projects are icing on a multi-tiered cake that includes scores of badly needed infrastructure projects – power, plumbing, roads and bridges – as well as unmet staffing needs and day-to-day operations.

According to a recent National Park Service report, the agency is increasingly neglecting its trails, roads and visitor centers due to budget constraints, delaying nearly $12 billion in needed maintenance projects.

And while there’s plenty to celebrate at Glacier, thanks in large part to the fundraising achievements of the Glacier Conservancy, Mow acknowledges that the park cannot sustain its reliance on diminishing Congressional appropriations, prompting a paradigm shift that refocuses thinking on strategic, collaborative funding and increased sustainability.

“Going into the centennial, part of the solution lies in what we are not thinking about,” Mow said last week. “And one aspect of what we are not thinking about is that Congress will suddenly come up with a significant appropriation to increase our base operations. Even in light of the centennial year, the increase of appropriations for operations was not very large. And even though it’s difficult times, and it’s a struggle, we have to come to grips with that reality. We cannot just wait it out and hope that there will be a magic increase in operational funds.”

The Park Service has the second largest infrastructure in the U.S. after the Defense Department, yet it only accounts for 1/15 of one percent of the total federal budget.

Mow said the starkness of that reality is brightened by a changing model in which public-private partnerships are less transactional and more collaborative, so as to identify and package the projects that are most important to the visitor experience while still appealing to outside donors.

“This has definitely been an incubator for us to learn and think about innovative and creative partnerships so we are not shouldering 100 percent of the operational costs and maintenance costs,” he said.

Preiss said that in the past, the park usually told the support groups what type of funding it needed, and the support groups doled out what they could. But identifying needs was never really a collaborative process. Since the merger, the conservancy and the Park Service have worked together to prioritize projects that need funding, running the gamut from scientific research to historic preservation.

“The federal government is responsible for providing the base operations for the park, and what we do is provide that margin of excellence,” Preiss said. “Those projects would not happen if we were to continue to rely exclusively on federal appropriations. When Jeff and I started, we came into this knowing that we wanted to have one of the best partnership models in the National Park Service, and we wanted to really have a collaborative partnership where we were leveraging the highest and best use of the resources that we bring to the table, so that we are committed to protecting the integrity of the park’s resources across the spectrum.”

Mark Preiss, left, CEO of the Glacier National Park Conservancy, speaks during a brief ceromony to welcome Glacier’s new superintendent, Jeff Mow. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon
Mark Preiss, left, CEO of the Glacier National Park Conservancy, speaks during a brief ceromony to welcome Glacier’s new superintendent, Jeff Mow. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

John Garder, budget and appropriations director for the National Parks Conservation Association, the nonprofit advocacy group that lobbies for the parks, said a cure-all solution does not exist, and the next century will include a mix of appropriations, fees, endowments, sponsorships, and public-private partnerships.

Still, Congress has an obligation to fund the nation’s parks, Garder said, and the agency’s anniversary should galvanize lawmakers to invest in a system that maintains more than 400 sites across the country.

“All of these supplemental funding sources, including philanthropy, are really critical for some exciting projects, some badly needed projects that enhance the visitor experience,” Garder said. “But at the end of the day, philanthropy will only fund so many needs, and Congress must continue to fund parks to bolster them and restore them for their next century of service to the American people.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 2.38.16 PMAccording to Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, the annual bill for maintaining America’s national parks is nearly twice as much as appropriated by Congress, with expenses growing every year.

Even so, Jarvis said he is encouraged that Congress seems to be getting the message after years of complaints.

Lawmakers approved $547 million for maintenance in the current budget year, a $118 million increase over last year. The figure includes spending in the agency’s budget and in the five-year transportation bill Congress approved in December.

The Park Service also hopes to expand a Centennial Challenge project enabling the agency to leverage private contributions to complete important projects that improve visitor services in the parks. Congress provided $15 million for projects this year that will be matched by almost $33 million from more than 90 private partners, according to Jarvis.

In 2015, that included electrical upgrades and a new fire sprinkler system at Many Glacier Hotel, as well as starting the reconstruction of its double-helix staircase. In 2016, the Centennial Challenge is funding the rehabilitation of the popular Highline Trail at Logan Pass and the transformation of the Swiftcurrent Trail to a wheelchair-accessible trail.

Garder said philanthropic contributions are critical to lifting charismatic projects off the ground – projects that are tangible to visitors – but they often don’t include the nitty-gritty infrastructure work needed to keep the Park Service running.

“A lot of infrastructure is deteriorating without the knowledge of the visitor,” he said. “Friends groups certainly provide funding for infrastructure that enhance the visitor experience, but lower down the totem pole is the day-to-day maintenance and basic resource protection, and there’s not a lot of discretionary funding to cover these.”

According to Mow, Glacier Park has an estimated $180 million in deferred maintenance, roughly $2 million more than a year ago and one of the highest amounts in the nation.

Over $3 million of the bill is in outdated wastewater systems, nearly $28 million is for aging and historic buildings, and about $123 million is for damaged or deteriorating roads.

The list is piling higher every year, Mow said, but he remains hopeful that these mounting issues will be addressed before it’s too late.

“It’s a work in progress,” Mow said. “We are trying to actively use partnerships, not just with the conservancy but with the visiting public. I have to say, we are very lucky at Glacier National Park because so many people are so well connected to us. Glacier is a place that really speaks to people, and that can result in philanthropy and volunteerism and other ways in which visitors want to stay connected and preserve this park.”

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