A survey conducted by a group of retired National Park Service employees concludes that strained budgets have made the national parks less safe for visitors and have left wildlife, historic and cultural resources less protected.
The survey found that staffing reductions have eliminated back-country patrols, lengthened emergency response times and decreased monitoring of protected species and park resources.
"This is not just about some more litter and some outhouses being locked. This has now escalated to visitor safety," said Bill Wade, a former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park and now an official with the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, which conducted the survey of 37 of the largest parks.
"The budget crisis in our national parks is real, and it will be felt keenly by park visitors this summer," Wade said. "Visitors and resources at national parks will be put at greater risk this summer than in the past due to extensive full-time emergency and law enforcement staff cuts."
The report, "Reality Check: What visitors to America's National Parks will experience during summer 2006," was released yesterday. It follows a survey released in April by the federal Government Accountability Office that found national parks and recreation areas losing ground when budgets are adjusted for inflation, despite modest increases.
The latest study, which cited examples from surveys of national parks from April to the beginning of this month, found that:
At Alaska's Denali National Park, ambulance calls increased 38 percent last year and the response staff has been drastically cut since then.
At Florida's Biscayne National Park, the number of patrols keeping an eye on park resources has been halved.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin has no law enforcement patrols or resource protection operations. Law enforcement rangers no longer live on islands that are visited, and any emergency response is dispatched from the mainland.
Bill Supernaugh, former superintendent of Badlands National Park and a member of the retiree group, said that without sufficient rangers on patrol in remote areas of large wilderness parks, visitors will lack a safety net.
"If they are in the back country, with reduction of ranger patrol, welfare checks, compliance check, there is a potential for some increase in risk to visitors who suffer some type of injury or get lost," he said.
The report said putting fewer rangers in the field could lead to wildlife poaching, defacing and theft at archaeological sites and destruction of park resources.
The earlier report also found that parks were closing campgrounds, reducing the hours of visitors centers and forgoing regular maintenance at restrooms and other park buildings
In addition, the parks face a maintenance backlog of about $5 billion, according to federal studies.
The National Park Service responded to the latest survey by acknowledging that "these are challenging times."
But in its written statement, the department was upbeat, noting a 95 percent visitor satisfaction rating. The agency is starting a summer promotion called "National Parks: The Place to be for Family Fun."
"Individual parks and the NPS as a whole have strived to become more innovative and efficient to ensure that basic visitor services meet public expectations," the statement said.
Julie Cart writes for the Los Angeles Times.