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Maybe it was the amphitheater at Capitol Reef that stood virtually empty during the park's busiest month, when visitors expected ranger campfire talks. Or the perpetually overwhelmed restrooms at Zion. Or the suspension of new archaeological surveys at Canyonlands.
Though not always noticeable, the signs really are everywhere: Utah's five national parks, like their counterparts around the country, are stretched more thinly than ever in their dual mission of protecting the nation's most spectacular places while also providing services to an ever-growing number of visitors.
With the arrival of Memorial Day weekend - kickoff to the parks' busy summer season - at least some of those visitors are worried not only about the present state of the parks, but what could be even further belt cinching by the agency.
"It seems like they've already done a lot of cutting. I don't know how they can go lower," said West Jordan resident Curtis Lord, who was camping at Capitol Reef earlier this month with his wife, Kim, and two sons, Noah and Brendon.
In fact, congressional funding for park operating budgets has increased in recent years. But critics say it has not been nearly enough to cover rising costs for things like salaries, fuel and heightened security measures in the post-9/11 environment. Throw in the huge bills from the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina - which have forced all federal agencies to tighten up - and the result is that national parks administrators find themselves constantly scrambling to provide essential services with fewer and fewer resources. And that doesn't even cover a $5 billion national backlog for major maintenance and capital projects in the parks.
"The budgets have been flat, and over the last couple of years it has gotten worse. Our national parks are continuing to lose ground," said Blake Selzer, legislative director for the Washington D.C.-based National Parks Conservation Association.
Now, the Park Service is exploring the possibility of more budget tightening. A new agency exercise, called the Core Operations Analysis, seeks to determine if the parks can cover their current fixed costs with 80 percent of their annual operating budget, leaving the remaining 20 percent for high-priority maintenance and emergency expenditures. Park Service officials insist it is not a budget cut, rather a way to maximize budget dollars and identify priorities.
"It is a challenging time," acknowledged National Park Service Director Fran Mainella, who passed through Utah earlier this month. "But our people have been very creative and they will continue to be. This [analysis] will make us more efficient and give us more effective tools to do the job."
Others see something more sinister at work. The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) last month released documents purporting to show that the Bush administration has directed the National Park Service to "substantially decrease its reliance on tax-supported funding," with the Core Operations Analysis serving as the vehicle to get there.
"Rather than being honest about planned budget cuts, the Bush administration once again makes stealth policy decisions cloaked by management reform mumbo jumbo," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "If our national parks are going to be reduced to performing only the bare minimum of 'core operations,' the public ought to be given some say as to what is considered essential."
Certainly, an argument can be made that the parks are operating pretty close to the bone as it is. Administrators at Utah's five parks and eight Park Service-managed national recreation areas and monuments have become virtual masters of the sleight-of-hand in juggling their limited resources. That might mean keeping an open staff position vacant, or merging jobs. Or using a volunteer to plug a hole. It could also mean reduced operating hours or delaying maintenance projects.
At a glance, anyway, the patchwork and bailing wire approach appears to be pulling them through. Park Service officials boast of a 96 percent satisfaction rating from visitors in a recent park survey.
"Everything is still open. Everything is still staffed. Hopefully, all the bathrooms are clean," quipped Paul Henderson, chief of interpretation and visitor services for the Southeast Group of Utah parks, which includes Canyonlands and Arches, and Hovenweep and Natural Bridges national monuments.
But to those who observe the national parks more closely, the strain is showing. They see facilities and staffers that are under siege.
"We go to a lot of parks, and the people who work in the parks love the parks, but they are overwhelmed," said Capitol Reef visitor Nancy Blackadder, a retired chemistry professor from Seattle.
"And you look at the facilities . . . At Zion, it's a little thing, but the bathrooms are falling to pieces, for God's sake, and it's not much better here."
A Government Accountability Office report on national parks funding issued last month tends to buttress such assertions. The study noted that though the Park Service's overall budget increased from $1.4 billion to $1.7 billion between 2001 and 2005 - or about 5 percent annually - the actual funding hike dropped to 1 percent after being adjusted for inflation. Net result: while the maintenance backlog budget slightly increased, daily operations allocations actually declined.
Now, with the new core operations exercise, park administrators aren't sure there is much more that can be cut without reducing essential services.
"We're already at a very, very core operation. It would be very, very hard for us to cut," said Capitol Reef Administrative Officer Carolyn I. Barker, who says fixed costs currently account for 90 percent of the park's current operating budget.
Mainella, the National Park Service director, insists that 80 percent is not a requirement, but rather, a goal. And regardless of the actual fixed costs, she and other park administrators believe the exercise will ultimately pay off for the agency - both on the ground and on Capitol Hill.
"Every business that wants to stay viable does this," said Kit Mullen, superintendent of Timpanogos Cave National Monument. "This is about adopting best business practices and managing better. By doing this analysis, it gives us hard numbers and real credibility when we go to Congress. Instead of just asking for more, we can say 'Look at this. We're doing everything we possibly can.' "
On that much, the Park Service and some of its critics can find agreement. Selzer, of the National Parks Conservation Association, says maximizing budget dollars and planning for the future is laudable. But the premise, he adds, is all wrong.
"One of the things this analysis is going to show is that in many instances the parks are already quite efficient and that their [operating] budgets are insufficient. It's important to do this, but it's not going to be a panacea," Selzer said. "The question really is, does the public really want the parks operated at the bare bones minimum, or does it want them to thrive? To really address the budget shortfall they have to really increase the rate of investment."
It's not as though the parks are devoid of ongoing improvements. Zion National Park Superintendent Jock Whitworth notes that through fee collections, a separate revenue stream that has netted Zion roughly $6 million annually in recent years, the park has been able to build an emergency operations center and restore its nature center, as well as repair various roads, buildings and restaurant facilities.
"With the fee money, we've been able to do a lot of good things," said Whitworth.
For the smaller parks and monuments, though, fee money doesn't make much of dent. At Capitol Reef, for instance, the park collects less than $100,000 annually to bolster its $1.9 million budget.
And everybody continues to wait on maintenance backlog projects. At Zion, it's funding to replace the park's 1960s-era restrooms. At Timpanogos Cave and Dinosaur national monuments, it's money to build new visitor centers. The current Dinosaur visitor center is crumbling; Timpanogos staffers operate out of a glorified double-wide.
Still, some visitors to Utah's national parks think the whole budget debate is overblown.
Centerville resident Dave Boyer, who was camping in Arches last week with his two daughters, believes services have actually improved during his visits over the years, even as the number of visitors has increased. Given his preference for backcountry hiking, he is untroubled by a possible decrease in park programs and staff levels.
"I don't need a ranger to tell me what to do," he said.
Others aren't so sure. Capitol Reef campground host Arlene Spear frets about the budget battles because of what she's already seeing day to day in the park. Earlier this month, the park's busiest, campground visitors clamored for ranger campfire talks and guided hikes, only to be told that the budget didn't allow for such activities until the summer season commences.
"There weren't any, and it was very disappointing to say that," she said.
But if Americans really feel that strongly about their national parks, some visitors say they should be willing to pony up.
John and Carol Swallow, a retired couple from Port Townsend, Wash., maintain that the parks' entrance fees are still ridiculously low, even after a pair of price hikes in recent years. The Swallows, touring through Arches in their RV, call the senior citizen entry fee of $5 particularly inadequate.
The parks ought to be charging more, they argue, especially in a period of such fiscal duress.
"The public has got to realize that inflation's hit everywhere," John Swallow said.
Utah park administrators believe that, despite the ever-tighter operating budgets, they still deliver a lot of bang for the buck, though acknowledge that in the current environment, things could get worse before they get better.
Henderson, from the Southeast Group of Utah parks, called the core operations exercise recently run at Canyonlands "sobering," because of that park's already-frugal approach to budgeting.
In that sense, he said, "You may see some bumps in the road in getting to fiscal stability."
However, he added, "I think we are still delivering a good visitor experience."
The Associated Press
contributed to this report
Number of parks (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef)
Combined size in acres
Combined operating budget in 2005
Visitors in 2005
Annual economic impact on the state
Campfire talks by rangers have been cut at Capitol Reef National Park due to a tight operating budget.