What You Don't See at Olympic Park
Report Criticizing Bush Administration for Funding Shortage Has Not Been Released to Public
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2004; Page A17
OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, Wash. -- A federal report says that a shortage of operating funds from the Bush administration is crippling this park, where 3.2 million people last year visited rain forests, alpine trails and one of the nation's longest wild coastlines.
"Core operations of the park are not funded sufficiently to meet the basic goals and mission of the park as defined by Congress," says the report, called the Olympic National Park Business Plan. It says the park receives only about half the money it needs.
But the business plan -- a detailed enumeration of the kind of chronic budget shortfalls that are forcing cutbacks in national parks across the United States -- has not been released to the public. Handsomely printed copies are gathering dust here at park headquarters.
A National Park Service official, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation, said the report has not been released because the Bush administration "doesn't like bad news. They don't like to see or hear about it or fix it. And they punish the messenger."
No order has been issued to withhold the report, according to William "Bill" Laitner, superintendent at Olympic.
In Washington, D.C., Elaine Sevy, a spokeswoman for the Park Service, said the report is based on outdated information and probably needs to be rewritten. "It's not a matter of anybody putting the clamps on and saying don't release it," she added.
But the principal partner with the Park Service in creating business plans for Olympic and many other national parks strongly disagrees.
"We are worried that some superintendents are not releasing the business plans for fear of retribution or criticism by the administration," said Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), a nonprofit advocacy group that monitors the nation's parks.
The superintendent at Gettysburg National Military Park was ordered by the Washington office of the Park Service to cancel a news conference that had been scheduled in the fall of 2002 to announce the park's business plan, which showed budget shortfalls. The plan was later made public on the park's Web site.
The Park Service canceled that news conference "not to hide the business plan," Sevy said, but because it believed that the NPCA might "go out there and say a lot of things that our superintendents aren't comfortable saying."
Until last August, NPCA had collaborated with the Park Service in a project that since 1998 has produced 64 business plans for national parks across the country. Twelve plans are being rewritten this year with new data. With funding from Congress, the project recruits graduate students from the country's best business schools and asks them to identify funding problems and management solutions for the parks.
Taken together, the business plans -- most of which have been made public -- have provided detailed documentation showing that the parks are chronically short of money. The reports show that most parks have annual operating budget shortfalls of about 30 percent.
For the business plans that are being redone this summer, Park Service headquarters is cautioning students and park superintendents not to write "overzealous" descriptions of budget needs that were often contained in previous reports, said Bruce Sheaffer, comptroller for the Park Service.
"Being realistic is key," Sheaffer said. "We told them this year to focus on those things that they can defend effectively, as opposed to writing a huge long unsubstantiated wish list."
The Park Service in August canceled its partnership with the NPCA on the business plans. "We were not seen as a friendly voice," said Ron Tipton, an NPCA senior vice president. Park Service officials declined to comment on why the partnership ended.
Although most of the reports have been made public, a senior manager in the business plan program says that in the past two years -- as the Bush administration has become increasingly stung by outside criticism about funding for the parks -- release of the plans has been subject to unexplained delays.
"The National Park Service has played a cagey game on this," said the manager, who helped create the program. "No one is being told absolutely they can't release the reports. But there certainly have been instances that make you wonder, why, after so long, the plans haven't come out."
This manager noted that park superintendents across the country are very much aware of what happened to Teresa C. Chambers, the chief of the U.S. Park Police who was suspended last year after saying that her force was underfunded and overstretched by new guard duties on the Mall.
"There is clearly a ripple effect from that," the manager said. "Park superintendents who have an eye for a bigger park or becoming a regional director are noting that they are better advised to hold their tongues on everything."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company