Washington, DC — Despite cuts imposed by fiscal sequestration, the National Park Service (NPS) is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to expand recreational activities that will further tax a shrunken corps of park rangers, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result of the sequester, NPS indicates it will leave 900 permanent position vacancies unfilled and cut hiring of seasonal employees needed to respond to spiking visitation in spring and summer by 1,000 slots – significant reductions for an agency with a permanent workforce of approximately 15,000.
At the same time, the agency is spending $400,000 for a study justifying broader personal watercraft (jet-ski) use and another $100,000 for a commercially-sponsored bicycle race. In the case of jet-skis, NPS seeks to undo the effects of a July 2010 federal district court decision striking down special use regulations allowing jet-skis at Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found the NPS approvals woefully deficient in addressing negative effects on water and air quality, wildlife, visitor use and safety and in violation of the NPS Organic Act, the Administrative Procedures Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Just days before the sequester took effect, Seashore Superintendent Dan Brown said the jet-ski study would take between 12 to 18 months and cost about $400,000, double the price of a simpler assessment, citing desires by other parks to use the assessment to rationalize opening more park areas to jet-skis.
“The Park Service wants a gold-plated study to document the absurd conclusion that jet-skis will not damage sea grasses, harass marine life or pollute in order to avoid another humiliating judicial reversal,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, arguing that such outlays belie NPS Director Jon Jarvis’ memo saying the sequester will require “difficult choices” throughout the agency. “It is downright irresponsible to open sensitive coastal areas to jet-skis without sufficient rangers to police against motorized abuse.”
The NPS also recently announced that it would spend $100,000 for “listening sessions” on special uses it may permit at Colorado National Monument. It appears the sessions are a means for NPS to reverse its earlier decisions to refuse a commercially-sponsored bicycle race in the park. The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees has protested in a March 14, 2013 letter calling the expenditure both contrary to agency policy and “hard to justify in the face of the budget sequester,” and suggesting the “money should instead go to mission critical operations in the park.”
“With the sequester extended through the fiscal year, we are amazed that the Park Service is exercising so little oversight of its contracting for non-essential and frankly dubious ‘planning’ efforts,” Ruch added, noting that the Park Service has also signed public relations contracts worth several million dollars to promotes its 2016 centennial. “By redirecting these monies, the agency could hire a good number of seasonal rangers who will be otherwise absent from parks this summer. “These expenditures only lend support to those who believe that our parks are more than adequately funded.”
PEER has a pending Freedom of Information Act request to determine the amount and source of funding for the NPS centennial campaign.