America's national parks are pinching pennies.
Unable to keep pace with payroll increases, fuel hikes, and utility costs, many of the nation's 390 parks, monuments, and recreation areas are charging visitors more while providing fewer services.
In fact, entry fees have doubled in Death Valley, from $10 last year to $20 this year, and four parks have peaked at a record high of $25: Glacier National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. The annual park pass fee at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area has hit $30 for the first time.
"These are challenging times," said Elaine Sevy of the National Park Service, which monitors a network of lands that cover 83 million acres.
She's not kidding:
• Yosemite National Park, which had 45 seasonal rangers five years ago, now has eight;
• Glacier National Park no longer provides drinkable water at three campgrounds;
• Rocky Mountain National Park has closed one of its six visitor centers;
• Maine's Acadia National Park has failed to fill 14 open jobs, including educational guides and law enforcement officers, and cut 20 ranger-led interpretive programs;
• Gettysburg National Military Park has cut staffers charged with maintaining more than 100 historic structures, including Civil War cannons.
The National Park Service has a $2.2 billion annual budget but that covers construction projects as well as operational costs. Congressional finding for park operations was $1.03 billion in fiscal 2005, an actual decline from fiscal year 2001 when inflation is factored into the equation.
The Bush Administration has proposed a $23 million increase for park operations, while Congress has earmarked $18 million, though neither proposal has passed. Even if the Bush proposal survives, it would boost park funding only 19 per cent over the last five years.
To help cope with the problem, the National Park Service has launched a system-wide review of core operations. The study, designed to focus on ways parks request and spend money, will not be completed until 2011.
In the meantime, the number of national park visitors - 273 million people last year - continues to rise. Their needs are not being met, according to an April survey of a dozen parks by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). It found all 12 parks were reducing visitor center hours, educational programs, and even law enforcement.
Smokey the Bear will not be pleased.