Over the last seven years, the National Park Service has spent $731,000 looking for dirt on St. Louis’ Gateway Arch — without ever actually cleaning the monument.
That’s just one of many wasteful spending projects highlighted in a new report from Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn that reveals extensive, costly mismanagement plaguing the National Park System.
“Perhaps more than any other part of the federal government, our National Park System has become the unfortunate symbol of the dysfunction in Washington, DC,” Coburn writes in a letter to taxpayers at the beginning of his report, “Parked!,” released Tuesday.
According to the report, misplaced priorities and politics have trumped smart appropriations. So instead of maintaining existing parks and projects, Coburn’s report says, the National Park Service has favored spending on frivolous activities and projects.
“For decades, the inability to address the maintenance needs in the National Park System has been recognized by Congress, administrations from both political parties, and all interested stakeholders as a problem that needs to be corrected. The catch is that repairing a roof, replacing a corroding water pipe or filling a pothole does not garner politically advantageous headlines or public attention,” the report reads.
The Park Service currently has a deferred maintenance backlog of $11.5 billion, according to the report.
“The price tag of this backlog has more than doubled over the past decade, not so much due to a lack of funds as much as a lack of priorities set by Congress,” the report explains. “Instead of addressing the urgent needs of our premier parks and memorials, Congress has instead focused on establishing new parks and diverting funds to local sites that are not even part of any national park. With each new park and program diluting limited resources, Congress has been effectively sequestering our national parks for decades.”
The report notes that deferring maintenance is up to five times more expensive in the long run.
With 401 “park units,” 27,000 historical structures, 2,461 national historic landmarks, 582 national natural landmarks, 49 national heritage areas and over 84 million acres of land, just 10 percent of the National Park Service’s $3 billion annual park budget goes to the 25 most popular parks. And this year, maintenance will be underfunded by a quarter of a billion dollars, according to “Parked!.”
The report explains that National Park visitor experiences are threatened by deteriorating facilities as resources are provided to “inessential activities,” duplicative programs, the purchase of more park units, preservation of foreign parks, and even subsidizing Washington, D.C.-area entertainment.
The more than 200-page report further highlights that while well-known entities like the National Mall deteriorate, lesser-known and unvisited parks suck up funding.
The report also delves into various categories of questionable parks:
1) Political or special interest rather than national importance;
2) Inaccessible to the public;
3) Important but would be better honored in a different capacity; and
4) Lacking national significance or authentic historical value.
Some of the waste highlights from the Coburn report include:
– $30 million campaign to celebrate 100 Year Anniversary Celebration: To prepare for the National Park Service centennial celebration in 2016, the National Park Service has hired the Grey Group, a high-end international marketing firm. The NPS will reportedly pay the firm $6 million annually for five years to manage “a multiplatform communications initiative.”
-$367,000 for music festivals: Despite the uproars of budget constraints during sequestration, NPS spent $367,000 to support various music festivals during the summer of 2013. NPS spent $29,000 on the Richmond Folk Festival, $18,000 for the New Bedford Water Front Festival, $58,000 for the National Folk Festival Showcase in St. Louis, Missouri, $32,000 for the Blue Ridge Music Festival, and $230,000 through two separate grants for a series of folk festivals in Lowell, Massachusetts. NPS even provides the Lowell Festival Foundation staff a “government-owned cell phone for official uses and the performance of assigned duties.”
-$174,000 3D HD Underwater Imaging Project: NPS has provided $174,000 to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to document underwater natural and cultural features in 3D high- definition (HD). The project’s purpose was to show “rarely seen resources to the public through a stimulating and immersive 3D HD technology” surrounding various national park units, including Isle Royale National Park and Pearl Harbor National Historic Site. Instead of funding an expensive photo-shoot or rarely seen objects, the $174,000 could have been used to fix the too often seen degenerated structures.
-NPS provides funds for Inflatable Fair Rides: The scope of the NPS has expanded to funding inflatable rides at county fairs. In August 2012, NPS provided $2,500 to rent inflatable rides at Hoover Hometown Days, an annual festival in West Branch, Iowa.
-7 years, 3 studies and $731,000 spent investigating Gateway Arch for cleaning without any cleaning getting done: The NPS spent at least $731,000 on three studies over a seven year span to inspect the Gateway Arch for stains to be cleaned, without actually doing any cleaning. A public information officer said that “One of the reasons it takes so long is it’s not easy to access to look at closely…. We’re taking it step by step, we want to do it correctly, we don’t want to cause any harm, we don’t want to waste dollars starting a process that’s incorrect.”
-NPS Video Game Production: The NPS National Center for Preservation Training and Technology awarded a $25,000 grant to a Rochester Institute of Technology professor “to develop an interactive video game that will transport students to virtual worlds of preservation and conservation archetypes.” The video game is based on the role-playing game, Elderscrolls IV: Oblivion, and players will be able to assume “the role of a conservator, conservation scientist or collection manager by virtually interacting with objects, materials and data embedded in quest narratives.” Various game options will allow players “to manage a library and protect it from the elements that accelerate deterioration. Another quest will allow players to take samples from ancient artifacts and analyze them to discover the secrets of its past.” NPS also developed “Hold the Fort,” a video game that allows players to be “in charge of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore, responsible for the defense of the fort and the city.” In the meantime, the real Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Site has accumulated $3.58 million in deferred maintenance needs.
-NPS spends $79,000 to collect data on “Visitor Perceptions of Climate Change in U.S. National Parks”: In August 2013, the Park Service awarded a $79,000 to the Center for Climate Change Communication “to investigate the climate change perceptions of visitors to National Parks and their reception of place-based climate change messages.” The survey will be based on Yale University’s “Global Warming’s Six America’s Survey,” which divides the public into six groups along a spectrum of attitudes towards the impacts of climate change from Alarmed to Dismissive. It is unclear what the connection between a visitor’s attitude towards climate change and whether they are inside a National Park boundary or not, but it is clear that NPS funding would be better spent fixing the visitors’ reality of $11.5 billion worth of crumbling infrastructure. The NPS expenditure is especially questionable given the massive investment the federal government already makes towards climate change programs. Between FY2008 and FY2012, 14 separate federal agencies spent $68.4 billion on climate change activities.
–And NPS spends $3.4 million per year for a Natural Sounds Program, which works to “protect, maintain, or restore acoustical environments throughout the National Park System.” The program produces documents that provide practical advice such as “visitors and park employees can improve their natural and cultural soundscape experience in our national parks by simply becoming more aware of the sounds around them.”
The National Park Service took issue with the report’s assertion that NPS paid the Grey Group marketing firm $30 million for centennial planning. Instead, NPS said, the National Park Foundation — the “philanthropic partner” of NPS — holds a contract with the Grey Group. NPS added that there are no tax dollars going to the Grey Group.
In a statement, NPS spokesman Jeffry Olson said the Park Service would review Coburn’s report and added that NPS appreciates the senator’s interest in their work.
“As we prepare for our second century of service to the American people, this is a good discussion to have,” he said.
Read the full report here:
*This article has been updated with the NPS response