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Fewer funds, more visitors hurt national parks?

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It's no wonder that Dinosaur National Monument, on the Utah-Colorado border, now has the worst visitor satisfaction ratings in the entire National Park Service — disappointing news disclosed during the current National Parks Week.

For two years, its world-famous visitor center — enclosing a cliff where 1,500 dinosaur bones in the rock were carefully exposed — has been closed as unsafe. It slowly split apart over years atop unstable soils. When and if money for renovation or reconstruction may be available is unclear. The center was the park's main attraction.

Budgets this year also eliminated the jobs of a geologist and museum technician. Sometimes other problems occurred, such as when phones at a temporary visitor center allowed workers to call out but no one could call in.

Such erosion could be a sign of the future for all the National Park Service if trends spotted in a Deseret News analysis continue. The newspaper looked at five years of National Park Service data on budgets, visitation and satisfaction surveys, from 2003 through 2007.

The analysis shows that visitation to parks is up nationally, creating more pressure on them. But the number of "full-time equivalent" employees is down, providing fewer services and less care despite the visitor growth. And increases in operations budgets at most parks are not keeping pace with inflation.

The same trends appear at the 13 units in Utah but are more extreme. Visitation is up more than the national average. Cuts in full-time equivalents are deeper than average. And operations budgets are falling further behind inflation than average.

"Are the parks in good condition? The best answer I can give is that discussion about that in the park service has many opinions," says National Park Service headquarters spokesman Jeffrey Olson.

"We still have far to go. But budget problems may have bottomed out a few years ago," he said, possibly ending when President Bush launched a drive to spruce up parks before the agency's centennial in 2016.

This week, proclaimed as National Park Week by Bush (and a long "week" at that: April 19-27), the administration announced the first $50 million in public-private matching grants in the president's "Centennial Challenge." It included some money for an artist-in-residence program in Utah's Zion National Park and for a youth program in Cedar Breaks National Monument.

Olson said that a few years ago, anecdotes were common about services in the parks being cut deeper every year. But now, amid more budget attention for parks for the centennial, he said more park administrators are starting to talk about adding or expanding services. The Deseret News found this to be true among several superintendents in Utah.

Troubling trends

The newspaper's analysis of national park data shows some troubling trends. In short, visitors may be loving the parks to death while the agency is cutting back on full-time employees and its budgets fall behind inflation.

The News found that between 2003 and 2007, recreational visits to parks nationally increased by 3.6 percent. But "full-time equivalents" of employees were cut by 2 percent.

Park-level operations budgets nationally did increase by an average of 11.6 percent in those five years. But that was lower than the 12.7 percent combined rate of inflation.

The situation was more extreme in Utah.

Visitation at its 13 sites increased 4.3 percent overall in that time. But full-time equivalents were cut by 6.6 percent, almost twice as deeply as the national average.

Meanwhile, park-level operations budgets in Utah increased overall by only 9 percent, well below the national average and the rate of inflation.

However, satisfaction surveys conducted at parks remain incredibly positive. In fact, 96 percent of visitors surveyed at parks nationally last year rated facilities, services and recreational opportunities as "very good" or "good." (The other options were "average," "poor" or "very poor.")

In Utah, 94 percent of visitors gave "very good" or "good" ratings, down a bit from 96 percent in 2003.

Olson said that since the agency commissioned such studies in 1998, "Our numbers of visitors who rank services as 'very good' have slipped." But, he adds, "They are only slipping from the 'very good' to the 'good' category."

Olson said the park service may be keeping visitors happy despite fewer employees and declining budgets because it has worked to better prioritize what services are most important and to fund them.

Similarly, he adds, the maintenance backlog at parks "is so large that realistically, we'll never address all of it" with foreseeable budgets, but the service tries to address the most important projects. He said emphasis from Bush's Centennial Challenge has helped keep budgets a bit healthier.

"It doesn't mean that they are where we like them. What it means is they are are not being cut any further," he said.

So how are Utah's national parks and monuments faring amid those trends? The News asked superintendents. Most acknowledge some lean times in recent years, but say budgets have most recently improved a bit.

Following is a park-by-park rundown of what their superintendents say.

Zion National Park

Superintendent Jock Whitworth said that since 2003, the park eliminated several top assistant management positions, usually by not filling vacancies when they occurred, as budgets failed to keep pace with inflation.

This year, "Congress did provide funding for 21 extra seasonal positions, mostly in interpretation and maintenance."

That boost and other budget improvements will allow the park this summer to extend visitor center and museum hours, add some ranger-led hikes and an additional narrated shuttle tour.

Zion is Utah's most-visited national park, with nearly 2.7 million recreational visitors last year. Because the park keeps about 75 percent of the entrance fees it collects, Whitworth said such money has helped fund several deferred maintenance projects, including rehabilitation of an old nature center.

Since 2003, as budgets have not kept up with inflation, Whitworth said, "We are doing OK. We could definitely use some more personnel. But we are surviving and doing good things."

Bryce Canyon

Superintendent Eddie Lopez said trails are in better shape, roads are smoother, the park has more seasonal interpreters this year and higher-paid permanent employees have been freed up from cleaning restrooms.

"We were far behind, but we can see some light now," he said when comparing 2003 to now.

He said Bryce also uses money from park entrance fees for trail and facility maintenance projects that were deferred because of a lack of federal funding.

Bryce has contracted since 2001 with Lewis Stages to provide a shuttle bus service, a program that began running in the black two years ago.

Lopez adds that Bryce benefits from its proximity to Zion and its smaller size and pace.

"Once you drop down into that canyon, it's very intimate," Lopez said. "It's very unique with the hoodoos. It's a fascinating resource."

Lake Powell

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Rainbow Bridge National Monument are managed jointly as if they were one large park. Area spokesman Kevin Schneider said services have not changed much over the past five years, and visitors would see about the same level of services as in 2003.

"But we're a little different category than most areas. Most of our visitor services are provided by concessionaires, and concessions generate a lot of revenue for us to spend on projects around the park," he said. It has helped improve some facilities for boaters and fishermen and fund some road projects.

Schneider said, however, that revenues have been down because visitation was down in recent years as the level of Lake Powell hit record-low levels during a drought. Visitation rebounded last year as lake levels rose.

"There was a perception, unfortunately incorrect, that the lake was not accessible or not as good" when levels were low, he said. "But it hasn't really affected the ability to get on the lake and have a good time."

Moab-area parks

Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Natural Bridges and Hovenweep national monuments form what the Park Service calls Southeast Utah Group.

"Operating budgets of the Southeast Utah Group have bounced back from the leaner times earlier in the decade," said Paul Henderson, chief of interpretation and visitor services at Arches and Canyonlands.

For example, this year "the group received operational budget increases to fund 31 centennial seasonal positions," including 10 at Arches, 16 at Canyonlands, one at Hovenweep and four at Natural Bridges, he said.

"These positions are all new seasonal positions and will greatly enhance our abilities to serve park visitors and protect park resources during the primary visitor season," he said.

He added that the parks will "meet or exceed the service levels of 2003," with increases this year in interpretive programs, back-country patrols and other programs. Since 2003, new visitor centers have opened at Hovenweep and Arches, and the Island in the Sky visitor center in Canyonlands is being expanded. He said many projects are being funded with shares of money from park entrance fees.

Dinosaur Monument

As mentioned, its main-attraction fossil quarry building closed two years ago. That led the monument to finish dead-last in 2007 among visitor satisfaction surveys in parks nationally. (Just 74 percent of visitors rated their experience as "very good" or "good," compared to a national average of 96 percent.)

Superintendent Mary Risser said that "providing a fully functioning facility for visitors, protecting the park's irreplaceable dinosaur fossils and making the dinosaur quarry accessible to the public are the top priorities for the National Park Service's Intermountain Region."

She said the service recently posted in the Federal Register its preferred option of providing a shelter over the fossil wall to protect the bones. That would allow visitors to see them on site, while other functions in the now-condemned visitor center could be moved to a more stable location.

Once that receives final approval, "we will be able to move forward with developing design and construction drawings, a process that typically takes at least a year. This way, we are ready to proceed as soon as we have the construction funds."

Meanwhile, she said the the park has set up a "make-shift auditorium" to show a video about the fossil wall. And the monument has moved many fossils and replicas to an outdoor visitor center. It has also developed new exhibits and is stressing other recreational opportunities within the monument.

Timpanogos Cave

Superintendent Denis Davis said that in recent years, "we have been in maintenance mode" at the national monument, trying to maintain and not cut services.

He said that fees paid by visitors "pay for four out of five cave tours that we offer. Our base monies pay for only about one of every five. Our fee program allows us to maintain an acceptable level of tours."

On busy days, he said, the park will sell out cave tours and some unhappy visitors are turned away. The park hopes to open cave tours this year by Mother's Day (May 11), but needs the deep snow on the mountain path to the cave to melt.

He said the monument's visitor center burned down more than a decade ago, and it has been using a double-wide trailer since then. "It was expected to be replaced. But we're still working on plans for that," he said.

"The way it works is the NPS has a block of money for major construction, and we have to compete for those dollars against other parks in the system. We haven't gotten money for a new visitor center yet."

Cedar Breaks

Superintendent Paul Roelandt said that from 2003 to 2007, budgets reduced staffing for visitor services at the national monument. Shortfalls led to such things as eliminating a park guide, a maintenance laborer and cutting hours for other staff.

But he said centennial initiative funding this year "enabled us to restore our seasonal positions and visitor services to our 2003 service level. In addition, we will for the first time have a base-funded, seasonal law-enforcement position."

Roelandt said the park has been making some progress in addressing its deferred maintenance backlog, but "a very significant amount of work still needs to be accomplished."

He added his monument "has seen our ability to serve our visitors and protect park resources shrink as energy, transportation, materials and other operational costs have grown. Over the past five years, we rely more and more on volunteers and student interns to help us maintain a minimum level of visitor services."

Golden Spike

Acting Superintendent Doug Crossen said the budget for this national historic site, where the transcontinental railroad was completed, is just now where it should have been 10 years ago, so some recent budget increases may be deceptive.

In short, the park in recent years has gone from "poor" to "good," he said.

That includes having newer vehicles for park employees, more roadway to take an automotive tour of the original railroad bed, new viewing stands to look inside the old locomotives on display, a better water system and more money for upkeep of the railroad still used today.

The park also added a full-time archaeologist. "He's quite busy," Crossen said, overseeing more than 300 sites that include camps where Chinese and Irish railworkers stayed during construction of the rail line.

In months ahead, Crossen said, the vacant positions of superintendent and full-time mechanic should be filled, and work will continue on improving walking and biking trails in the area.

Capitol Reef

The national monument lost three full-time-equivalent employees between 2003 and 2007, while visitation increased by 3.6 percent. Superintendent Al Hendricks said a few vacancies were transfers and that those positions will be filled.

The park's operating budget increased 7.9 percent from 2003 to 2007, only about 62 percent of inflation. Hendricks said cost of living increases for employees on a salary have not kept up with inflation.

"We're holding our own, I would say," Hendricks said about where the park is today compared to 2003. "We definitely try to keep money in positions that serve the public directly, the walks and talks kind of thing, keeping the restrooms clean, things that people expect and notice if we fail."

One unique draw to Capitol Reef, particularly with the locals, is the 2,600 acres of orchards in the park that produce apricots, cherries, apples, plums, peaches and pears. Hendricks said it's the largest orchard in the national park system. As each crop ripens, people can use ladders provided by the park to pick and eat as much as they want while they're there or pay about $1 per pound to take fruit out.

"It's something we're rather proud of," Hendricks said. "You can just go in and help yourself."

E-mail: lee@desnews.com; sspeckman@desnews.com