Yellowstone National Park and Change: The 100 Year Park Service Experiment

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Yellowstone National Park and Change: The 100 Year Park Service Experiment

By: John A. Baden, Ph.D.
Posted on April 16, 2015 FREE Insights

Yellowstone National Park and Change

This and the following FREE Insights will deal with the changing environments effecting Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone was created in 1872 as the world’s first national park. Many referred to it as “America’s Best Idea.” Ken Burns produced a 2009 PBS documentary series with that title.  The goal for the national parks was to identify spectacular natural areas and preserve them forever.

Yellowstone involves far more than geology and ecology. Yellowstone and all other parks and wild lands are nested in cultural, economic and political environments. These are constantly changing but often in predictable ways.

As these environments change, the management of the park must adapt or the purpose for which it was created will be lost. These adaptations are led by institutional entrepreneurs. This and the following two Insights will sketch this process.

FREE Insights will keep you advised of additional developments in FREE’s Yellowstone series. In cooperation with several organizations, we hope to soon be available on several additional websites as well.

The 100 Year Park Service Experiment

Congress created the U. S. Park Service in 1916 and it took over Yellowstone's management in 1918.  Since then we have enjoyed, or at least experienced, a century of experimentation with political funding of Progressive Era management. 

Yellowstone's successes include successful reintroduction of the wolf in 1995 and rejuvenation of the grizzly population. The latter has more than doubled after a population crash in the 1970s.  (f.n. The Yellowstone area’s bear population is estimated at more than 700 bears, said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator. The grizzly’s distribution has increased 200 percent since 1981 and they are pushing out in all directions.)  While the Park Service has made mistakes, most have been corrected or are reversible.  Compared to likely alternatives, America has surely benefited from the experiment. 

Now new threats are emerging--and I'm not including climate change or invasive species.  Consider the political economy of the National Park System.  Under existing institutions the future looks grim.  A key reason is simply that discretionary spending by the federal government is trending downward. 

Discretionary spending is one of two categories in the federal budget. Mandatory spending, about 60% of the federal budget and growing, is the other.  All Park Service funding is discretionary.

In contrast mandatory spending, which includes servicing the national debt, is automatic. The CBO projects the interest on the national debt to more than double from 2015 to 2020, from $251 billion to $556 billion. Manditory government spending is determined by formulas, many set years ago. Social Security, Medicare, agricultural subsidies, and corn ethanol for example, have strong constituencies.  The Republican presidential primaries in Iowa illustrate this political force. 

Congress resets discretionary spending each year in response to political pressures. Adjusting for inflation, the National Park Service's operating budget has dropped twenty percent since 1990.   National parks are operating with about two-thirds of what they claim is required to meet their mandate.  The Park Service deficit is about $600 million a year.

The GAO has documented about $11 billion in backlogged maintenance and neglected infrastructure throughout the system.  Yet the number of units in the system keeps increasing as a result of political pressures. There are over 400 units in the system, 59 of them national parks.  Although the maintenance backlog for existing units continues to increase, fifteen have been added since 2010. 

( f.n. 2010   "Barely three months beyond the euphoria raised by Ken Burns’ documentary on the national parks (America's Best Idea)..., President Obama wants to freeze funding levels of the National Park Service...."

2011 Appropriations are "...not enough to keep the Park Service from running roughly $600 million shy of its annual funding needs, according to the NPCA  (National Parks Conservation Association). Nor is it enough to whittle away the agency's maintenance backlog, which, Park Service Director John Jarvis recently told congressional committees, is nearing $11 billion.)

Given the obvious and growing squeeze, new arrangements must be created to honor the Park Service mission:

The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world. 

Governments face tighter budgets constraints, especially retirement expenses at state and local levels.  When they kick in, the phrase, "cooperates with partners" will be key to the future of America's parks and wildlands.

When John Stoddard wrote about Yellowstone Park in the 1890s he believed the U. S. Army was the appropriate caretaker. He wrote, "No one who has visited the National Park ever doubts the necessity of having soldiers there...."  He was probably correct at that time.  Then, in 1916 the Progressives created the Park Service with the goal of scientific management. That experiment has generally worked well.  However, as the political economy environment changes, the Park Service must adapt to honor its mandate. 

If we agree national parks are among America's best concrete ideas, the challenge is to preserve the values that justified their creation. Some creative conservationists are exploring options for managing parks and wild lands in the changing environment.  A key to success is insulating the parks from political pressures and supplementing or replacing federal funding.  This implies increased cooperation with a variety of public nongovernmental organizations.  

Americans excel at creating such organizations through a variety of foundation and fiduciary trust arrangements. As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Park Service, people are exploring new models for funding and stewarding the lands and resources it manages.  On October 31 of 2014 Dan Wenk took a temporary leave as Superintendent of Yellowstone to become interim head of the National Park Foundation. (f.n. Dan Wenk joined the National Park Foundation's D. C. office as the interim President as of October 30 and will return to his role as Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park upon the successful conclusion of a search for a new president and CEO for the Foundation.) Closer to home, the Bozeman based Yellowstone Park Foundation is planning a major capital campaign, ten of millions of dollars, to sustain the Park.   "...if we take the same visionary action that created the Yellowstone we love today, your support can preserve an extraordinary Yellowstone that lasts forever.

Institutional entrepreneurs envision new arrangements for cooperating toward a shared purpose.  They are undertaking this challenge for our parks and wild lands.  Their success is our hope for preserving unimpaired the natural and cultural resources of the national parks.  As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1840:

"In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded" (Tocqueville 1840, 599).

Yellowstone is unlikely to soon become a legally independent fiduciary trust like George Washington's Mount Vernon.  It is a foundation that has not accepted any government funding.  Thomas Jefferson's Monticello likewise is a private, nonprofit 501(c)3 corporation, that "...receives no ongoing federal, state, or local funding in support of its dual mission of preservation and education." 

The political mischief of October 1 through 16 of 2013 caused a shutdown of most routine federal activities including the national parks.  Mount Vernon and Monticello, being independent trusts, remained open.  (Nearby parking lots on federal land were closed by federal law enforcement.) 

These events indicate some of the dangers inherent to government ownership, management, and control.  There will surely be no rapid and radical change in the national parks.  However, as the logic of our costly political capitalism plays out, I predict increasing experimentation with fiduciary trusts to manage our parks.  They provide one way to protect the values justifying their creation. 


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