Rangers Among Parks’ Rarest Sights

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Even with volunteer help, many short-staffed federal recreation sites have cut back visitor center hours, patrols and educational talks.

Source of this article – Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2006

SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS NATIONAL RECREATION AREA — Visitors to California’s national parks may be in for some unpleasant surprises this summer: unkempt restrooms, shorter hours at visitor centers and fewer park rangers.

In fact, many visitors may not see a National Park Service ranger, as the agency’s threadbare budget has forced officials to recruit volunteers to fill jobs formerly performed by federal employees and to reduce or eliminate traditional visitor services.

“The old saying in the park service is, ‘We can do more with less,’ ” said Craig W. Dorman, superintendent of Lava Beds National Monument, near the Oregon border. “I don’t think that’s true anymore. We’re now in a position of doing less with less.”

California is not alone. Nationwide, the 390 parks, monuments, seashores and recreation areas managed by the park service are experiencing “challenging” times, said agency Director Fran Mainella.

At Acadia National Park in Maine, all seven restrooms along trailheads and roads have been closed. At the Grand Canyon, the park’s highly popular education programs have been cut by one-third. At Glacier National Park in Montana, officials shut off drinkable water at three campgrounds. And, while scores of parks have cut hours at visitor centers or delayed their opening dates, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado closed one of its six centers for good.

The federal Government Accountability Office recently reported that although the park service budget has risen slightly over the last few years, its spending power has declined when adjusted for inflation.

Further, the report found that most major American parks, including Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon, don’t have sufficient funds for daily operations. The April report concluded that all 12 parks studied had cut back on visitor services, including “visitor center hours, educational programs, basic custodial duties and law enforcement operations such as back-country patrolling.”

And while the agency struggles to whittle down a $5-billion maintenance backlog, the Bush administration is proposing to cut $100 million from its budget for next year, which begins Oct. 1. The agency’s budget last year was $1.7 billion.

On a recent morning at Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a fourth-grade class from Norwood Street Elementary in Los Angeles was on a nature hike led by a volunteer, as two-thirds of the park’s educational hikes are.

Park Supt. Woody Smeck, with a staff down by 12 people, said the schoolchildren were not able to visit the Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center, which was closed.

The absence of rangers is immediately obvious to visitors accustomed to uniformed park service personnel on hand to give directions or answer questions about flora and fauna. Those services, if they are offered at all, are conducted by volunteers at many parks.

The work performed by volunteers at Santa Monica Mountains has doubled in 10 years, Smeck said. Volunteers now run the visitor center, patrol the backcountry on bikes, restore and repair trails, and conduct inventories of wildlife, he said.

Radio-equipped riders from local mountain bike groups patrol the park’s trail system, monitor the conditions and report problems to the park staff.

“Really, we have these folks doing core mission work,” Smeck said.

Volunteers aren’t a panacea, officials say. Some far-flung parks, such as Lava Beds and Pinnacles national monuments, lack a large nearby population base to draw from, forcing reduction in some programs.

And, even at Santa Monica — essentially an urban park — volunteerism has its limits.

“We could use more,” Smeck said, “but don’t have the staff to train them.”

Last year, 423 million people visited national parks around the country and, according to surveys, 96% of the respondents said they thought the National Park Service was doing a good job.

Park officials have been attempting to make cuts invisible to visitors, with mixed results. Dorman, the superintendent at Lava Beds, said that when staff openings occur, he fills the vacancies at a lower pay grade. He authorizes fewer vehicle patrols, to save on gas and maintenance, and assigns one person instead of three to staff the visitor center.

At Yosemite, which attracts 3.4 million visitors every year, eight seasonal rangers do the work of the 45 who used to be positioned at various scenic spots to tell visitors about the park’s natural wonders, including waterfalls and rock formations. Six of the eight positions are funded by the nonprofit Yosemite Assn.

During the summer, only one in five interpretive programs will be conducted by a ranger, said park spokesman Scott Gediman. Other tours are being led by guides hired by the park’s commercial concessionaire. Volunteers are pitching in as campground hosts and even assisting law enforcement personnel.

“We’re lucky here,” Gediman said. “We’ve had volunteers who have been here for 20, 25 years. And we have such a great support from our friends groups.”

Neglect is compounded at Redwood National Park north of Eureka, which is co-managed by the park service and the cash-strapped state park system.

“We’re like two poor cousins trying to help each other out,” said Amy Caldwell, the administrative officer for the national park.

Although no campgrounds have been closed, Caldwell said rangers’ campfire talks have been drastically cut and the park’s custom of sending rangers roaming along trails to answer questions is “almost nonexistent.”

Indeed, fireside talks conducted by park rangers and trail walks led by wildlife biologists are part of a bygone era at most parks.

Pinnacles National Monument, southeast of Salinas, is home to the park service’s only condor reintroduction site. Traditionally, rangers stationed themselves near condor viewing areas to answer questions. Now, with staffing down by 25%, the popular program has been cut.

Park Supt. Eric Brunnemann said ruefully that visitors are left to their own devices.

“Now we just tell people, ‘You’ll see ’em from the high peaks. Have a nice walk.’ ”



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