oversight

Park Service: Managing for Results Could Strengthen Accountability

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-04-10.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                  United States General Accounting Office

GAO               Report to Congressional Requesters




April 1997
                  PARK SERVICE
                  Managing for Results
                  Could Strengthen
                  Accountability




GAO/RCED-97-125
                   United States
GAO                General Accounting Office
                   Washington, D.C. 20548

                   Resources, Community, and
                   Economic Development Division

                   B-276619

                   April 10, 1997

                   Congressional Requesters

                   The National Park Service within the Department of the Interior is the
                   caretaker of many of this nation’s most precious natural and cultural
                   resources. The agency’s mission, as mandated by the Congress, is to
                   provide for the public’s enjoyment of these resources while preserving and
                   protecting them for the enjoyment of future generations. The 374 units that
                   now make up the national park system cover over 80 million acres and are
                   estimated to serve over 265 million visitors annually. The park system is
                   continuing to grow and includes a diverse mix of sites, ranging from
                   natural areas such as Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks to urban
                   areas such as Gateway National Recreation Area in Brooklyn, New York,
                   to national battlefields, national historic sites, and national preserves.

                   In recent years, the Park Service has received increased funding for the
                   operation of the national park system. At the same time, however, many
                   parks have cut back different activities. In light of these conditions, you
                   were concerned about how the Park Service sets priorities and how it
                   decides which activities will be cut back. Accordingly, you asked us to
                   (1) describe the process used by the Park Service to develop budgets and
                   establish operating priorities; (2) determine the limitations, if any, of the
                   agency’s priority-setting processes at a sample of parks; (3) determine
                   what, if any, implications the Government Performance and Results Act
                   (GPRA) has for the Park Service; (4) provide information on trends in
                   cutbacks of visitor services at the parks; and (5) compare funding levels
                   for park operations with those for other federal land management agency
                   operations.

                   Our work focused on reviewing the Park Service’s processes for budgeting
                   and setting operating priorities at headquarters, four regional offices, and
                   four parks.1 While this sample of park units may not be representative of
                   the system as a whole, our work provides useful insights into the Park
                   Service’s priority-setting and budgeting processes.


                   While headquarters plays a key role in formulating requests for increases
Results in Brief   to the Park Service’s operating budget, decisions about spending and
                   operating priorities associated with park operating funds are delegated to


                   1
                   The four parks included in our analysis are Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Independence
                   National Historical Park, Olympic National Park, and Yellowstone National Park.



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the individual park managers. As a result, the individual park managers
have broad discretion in deciding how to spend park operating funds.
These decisions have been difficult because, while park budgets have been
rising, the costs of operating the parks have also been rising in response to
factors such as required pay and benefit increases. As a result, spending
decisions made by park managers frequently involve trade-offs among
competing demands within the parks for activities such as resource
management, visitor services, or maintenance. The most significant
limitation associated with the Park Service’s decentralized priority-setting
and accountability systems is that they lack a focus on the results achieved
with the funds spent. According to the park managers we spoke with,
regional or headquarters staff rarely, if ever, discussed with them
operating priorities or the results accomplished with the funds provided.
Key components needed to hold park managers accountable, such as
processes for setting results-oriented expectations or monitoring
outcomes, are missing. No expectations have been established for the
goals that are to be achieved in the parks, and there is no process for
measuring progress toward these goals. As a result, the agency lacks a
means to monitor progress toward achieving its goals and to hold park
managers accountable for the results of park operations.

GPRA  offers the Park Service an opportunity to improve its system of
accountability. GPRA is designed to hold federal agencies more accountable
for their performance by requiring them to establish performance goals,
measures, and reports that provide a system of accountability for results.
It requires each federal agency to develop, no later than September 30,
1997, strategic plans that cover a period of at least 5 years. The Park
Service is currently implementing GPRA and plans on issuing its strategic
plan, which will extend through fiscal year 2002, in the spring of 1997. GPRA
can also provide the Congress and the Park Service with a powerful
vehicle for communicating and clarifying expectations about what the
agency can achieve with the funding the Congress provides. Therefore,
consultations between the Congress and the Park Service on the agency’s
strategic plan are critical.

Information is not available from the Park Service to determine
agencywide trends in cutbacks of visitor services. Each of the four parks
that we visited has reduced its visitor services to some degree over the
past 5 years. The extent of these cutbacks varied from park to park.
However, the most extensive cutbacks occurred in 1996. For example, in
1996, Great Smoky Mountains National Park closed several campgrounds
to park visitors. These conditions are consistent with our past work, which



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             showed significant cutbacks in visitor services between 1985 and 1993 at
             11 of the 12 parks we visited.2 However, it is important to note that the
             cuts in visitor services were relatively small compared with the reductions
             in other park activities, such as maintenance and administration.

             Spending on operations by the Park Service has increased in real terms by
             about 30 percent since 1985. Similarly, the operating budget of the U. S.
             Fish and Wildlife Service has grown by about 28 percent over the same
             period. The operating budgets of the other federal land management
             agencies have grown more slowly or declined since 1985. The Bureau of
             Land Management’s and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ operating
             budgets have increased by 5 percent and 3 percent, respectively while the
             U.S. Forest Service’s operating budget has decreased by 24 percent.


             The Park Service’s mission has dual objectives. On one hand, the agency is
Background   to provide for the public’s enjoyment of the resources that have been
             entrusted to its care. This objective involves providing for the use of the
             parks by supplying appropriate visitor services (such as campgrounds and
             visitor centers) and infrastructure (such as roads and water systems) to
             support these services. On the other hand, the Park Service is to protect
             the resources so that they will be unimpaired for the enjoyment of future
             generations. Balancing these dual objectives has long shaped the dialogue
             about how best to manage the national park system.

             In the past few years, the dialogue about how best to manage the park
             system has taken on a new dimension. While the Congress and the
             executive branch have been working under increasingly tight budget
             constraints, the national park system has continued to expand—35 parks
             have been added since 1985. In addition, the Park Service estimates that its
             maintenance backlog, including the costs of general maintenance and
             rehabilitation to existing facilities and roads, exceeds $4 billion.3 One of
             the ways the Park Service has dealt with these conditions is to cut back or
             curtail visitor services in many parks. These cutbacks and curtailments in
             services have led to concerns about how the agency is being
             managed—particularly about how priorities are set within the agency.




             2
             National Parks: Difficult Choices Need to Be Made About the Future of the Parks (GAO/RCED-95-238,
             Aug. 30, 1995).
             3
             Agency officials acknowledge that they do not know the precise dollar amount of the total
             maintenance backlog.



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                       Most of the funding for the Park Service is for park operating budgets. For
Parks Set Priorities   fiscal year 1997, the Park Service was appropriated about $1.5 billion. Of
Through the            this, about $1.2 billion was appropriated to cover the operation of the park
Budgeting Process      system—including the headquarters and regional offices. About 80 percent
                       of the operating funds go directly to the parks to cover the costs of their
                       day-to-day operations. This operating budget is the primary funding source
                       for any park. At the park level, it is generally referred to as the base
                       budget.

                       The process for formulating park operating budgets is incremental. This
                       process begins with the prior year’s budget as a base and focuses priority
                       setting on requests for increases to the prior year’s base budget. Requests
                       for operating increases primarily take two forms: mandatory pay increases
                       and specific increases for individual parks—some for new or higher levels
                       of ongoing operating responsibilities, such as law enforcement, and others
                       for one-time projects, such as the rehabilitation of a historic property.
                       Headquarters takes the initiative in requesting the funding for all required
                       pay increases on a servicewide basis. However, for park-specific increases,
                       the parks compete against one another for limited funds through their
                       regional and headquarters hierarchy. Thus, the formal priority-setting
                       process focuses primarily on marginal increases to last year’s budget—not
                       on the priorities of ongoing park activities.

                       While headquarters plays a key role in formulating requests for increases
                       to the Park Service’s budget, decisions about spending and operating
                       priorities associated with a park’s base budget are delegated to the park
                       managers. The superintendent—the chief park official—at each of the 374
                       park units reports to one of several regional directors, each of whom
                       reports to headquarters. However, upon receiving their budget allocation
                       for base operations, the superintendents exercise a great deal of discretion
                       in setting operational priorities. Many of the park officials we spoke with
                       stressed the importance of this decentralized, park-based decision-making
                       structure, under which park managers plan and execute their budget with
                       as little involvement from regional and headquarters managers as possible.
                       Park Service officials at all levels within the agency maintained that
                       park-level managers were in the best position to plan activities at their
                       park and make decisions about priorities and spending on a day-to-day
                       basis. Hence, regional and headquarters officials generally do not get
                       involved in priority-setting and spending decisions for parks. Typically,
                       these decisions involve trade-offs among four categories of spending:
                       (1) visitor services (e.g., opening a campground), (2) resource
                       management (e.g., monitoring the condition of threatened species or water



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quality), (3) maintenance needs (e.g., repairing a trail), and (4) park
administration and support (e.g., updating computer systems or attending
training).

In fiscal year 1997, about 70 percent of the Park Service’s operating budget
is allocated for personnel services—salaries and benefits of park
employees. The remaining 30 percent is allocated for items such as
utilities, contracted services, equipment, training, travel, and supplies. As a
general rule, the higher the proportion of personnel to nonpersonnel costs,
the less flexibility an agency has to reduce costs in the short term when
budgets are tight. Further limiting the Park Service’s flexibility is the large
proportion—93 percent—of staff who are permanent employees. Because
so many staff are permanent, the parks cannot reduce costs by reducing
the largest component of their operating costs—salaries and
benefits—during off-peak seasons. At the four parks we visited, the
percentage of the park budget dedicated to salaries and benefits ranged
from about 75 percent at Yellowstone National Park to about 85 percent at
Olympic National Park.

Park personnel costs will increase annually with required pay and benefit
increases and other administrative actions. To the extent that a park’s
budget does not increase at the same rate as its personnel costs, the park
must absorb some or all of the increase in salaries and benefits. For
example, Independence’s budget increased from $10.42 million in fiscal
year 1994 to $10.64 million in fiscal year 1996—an increase of $220,000.
However, during this 2-year period, salaries and benefits increased by
$376,000 and an administratively required salary enhancement program for
park rangers cost an additional $455,000.4 As a result, during this period
the increase in the park’s funding did not cover the increase in salaries and
benefits, and the park had to absorb over $610,000 in cost increases.
Similarly, at Yellowstone, from fiscal year 1993 through fiscal year 1996,
the park’s funding increased by $2 million while mandatory salary and
nonsalary components, such as utility costs, rose by about
$4 million—requiring the park to absorb about $2 million in increased
costs over 3 years. At Great Smoky Mountains, from 1994 through 1996,
the operating cost increases for personnel alone were more than twice as
great as the funding increases.

Since park budgets consist primarily of salaries and benefits, absorbing
costs can be very difficult without reducing personnel. Parks frequently try

4
 We previously reported that in fiscal year 1994 the Park Service requested and the Congress approved
an upgraded civil service classification for rangers.



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                       to reduce spending for training, travel, and some supplies, but these costs
                       are only a minimal part of their budget. In some cases, parks have had to
                       make further cuts to absorb increases, either by not hiring seasonal
                       employees or by not filling the positions of permanent employees who
                       resign or retire. In either case, having fewer workers means that some
                       activities will not be performed. For example, in 1996, Great Smoky
                       Mountains absorbed increases in costs by hiring fewer seasonal staff. As a
                       result, park managers chose to close two backwoods campgrounds for
                       that year because there were not enough maintenance staff to clean and
                       maintain them. Yellowstone also absorbed increased costs in 1996 and had
                       to cut back on a number of activities, including the operation of a
                       campground and two museums. During the same year, Olympic eliminated
                       six seasonal law enforcement ranger positions. According to park officials,
                       this cutback delayed the response time to park incidents. The officials also
                       told us that reductions in resource protection patrols resulted in the
                       accumulation of 50 to 100 tons of trash and litter that washed up on the
                       Olympic coast during the winter months.

                       Superintendents typically face numerous trade-offs in making spending
                       decisions. For example, in 1996, Yellowstone faced several competing
                       demands—several of which it was not able to fund. Providing the same
                       levels of activities in 1996 as were provided in 1995 would have cost the
                       park about $2 million more than it was provided. The additional costs
                       were due to mandated increases for items such as employee background
                       investigations, employee salaries and benefits, and increased water and
                       sewage testing. To offset these increased costs, the park managers
                       reduced spending for travel, training, and supplies; permitted several
                       permanent and seasonal staff positions to lapse; and closed a campground
                       and two nearby museums. Our past work has shown that such trade-offs
                       occur frequently at many parks in the system.5


                       Although park managers need flexibility to effectively manage their park,
Priority Setting and   accountability for the results achieved with the funds spent is also
Accountability         important. There is nothing inherently wrong with a decentralized
Systems Lack a Focus   management system or with delegating decisions about spending and
                       operating priorities to park managers. However, the park managers we
on Results             spoke with indicated that they rarely, if ever, discussed with regional or
                       headquarters staff their park’s operating priorities or the results
                       accomplished with the funds spent. Under these conditions, the current


                       5
                        See footnote 2.



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decentralized priority-setting and accountability systems lack a focus on
the results that were achieved.

Our prior work has shown that a good system of accountability would
include elements such as (1) a process for establishing expectations for
accomplishments, (2) a means of measuring progress against expectations,
and (3) a means of holding managers responsible for achieving
agreed-upon progress.6 Park Service officials told us that park
superintendents set annual performance expectations with their regional
director and are held accountable for meeting these expectations.
However, park officials also told us these agreements generally focused on
accomplishing tasks, such as completing a park’s general management
plan, rather than on accomplishing measurable park goals, such as
inventorying and evaluating the condition of cultural resources.

Officials at the four parks we visited indicated that few, if any, reviews of
or agreements on their annual operating priorities had taken place
between regional or headquarters offices and the park. Officials at the four
regional offices responsible for the four parks indicated that it was up to
the parks to establish operating priorities and said that they did not get
involved in setting park priorities. (These four regional offices are
responsible for over 275 park units—or over three-fourths of the total
number of parks.) Under this system, key components needed to hold
superintendents accountable are missing. Without expectations about the
goals that are to be achieved in the parks, a means for measuring progress
toward these goals is not in place. As a result, the agency’s ability to
determine or ensure that the desired results are achieved is diminished.

The parks we visited had a variety of planning documents that described
critical needs within each park. However, the documents did not establish
expectations for addressing these needs or provide for measuring the
progress achieved during the year. Furthermore, the needs described in
the planning documents were generally not linked to the budget process or
to currently available budgetary resources. As a result, critical issues that
are expressed as priorities in planning documents may not be funded
when spending decisions are made.

In the current fiscal climate of tight budgets, it is particularly important for
a decentralized agency like the Park Service to have a good system of
accountability. If a park, regional office, and headquarters agree on

6
 See Managing for Results: Using GPRA to Assist Congressional and Executive Decision-making
(GAO/T-GGD-97-43, Feb. 12, 1997) and Executive Guide: Effectively Implementing the Government
Performance and Results Act (GAO/GGD-96-118, June 1996).



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                            expectations, goals, and results and measure the park’s progress against
                            these expectations, then the agency will have a better system for holding
                            park managers accountable for how park funds are spent. Furthermore,
                            with such a system, the Park Service would be better able to understand
                            and communicate what is being done and what is being accomplished with
                            the agency’s operating funding on a year-to-year basis. Such a system of
                            accountability would be consistent with the goals of GPRA. The Park
                            Service has an opportunity to employ the basic tenets of GPRA to
                            strengthen its system of accountability.


                            GPRA is designed to hold federal agencies more accountable for their
GPRA Provides a             performance by requiring them to establish performance goals, measures,
Framework to                and reports that provide a system of accountability for results. It requires
Improve                     each federal agency to develop, no later than September 30, 1997, strategic
                            plans that cover a period of at least 5 years. Beginning with fiscal year
Accountability              1999, agencies are required to prepare annual performance plans with
                            annual goals that are linked to the goals in the strategic plan. They must
                            then measure their performance against the goals they have set and report
                            publicly on how they are progressing against their expectations. The Park
                            Service has prepared a draft strategic plan that covers the 5-year period
                            from fiscal year 1998 through fiscal year 2002.

                            Implementing GPRA involves three key steps: (1) setting expectations by
                            developing strategic plans that define the mission, goals and desired
                            outcomes for an agency; (2) measuring progress or performance against
                            these expectations; and (3) using information on performance as a basis
                            for deciding whether progress has been achieved. As strategic plans are
                            developed, agencies are required to consult with the Congress and
                            consider the views of other stakeholders.


GPRA Can Help Improve       Accountability for results is especially important for an agency like the
Accountability Within the   Park Service, which sets priorities and develops budgets at the park unit
Park Service                level. Under this decentralized management structure, individual park
                            managers can make decisions about park operations that may or may not
                            be consistent with the agency’s mission, priorities, or goals.

                            By implementing GPRA, the Park Service can improve accountability
                            because each unit of the national park system, each program, and the
                            agency as a whole will be developing long-term and short-term plans




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                          laying out what is to be accomplished over prescribed periods of time.7
                          For example, according to Park Service officials, each of the 374 units in
                          the national park system will be required to develop strategic and annual
                          performance plans that state what each park is expected to accomplish.
                          The performance of each park unit will then be measured against its
                          annual expectations, and both the Congress and the agency can then use
                          this information to assess that park’s progress towards meeting the
                          established expectations. The performance of the agency’s programs and
                          of the agency as a whole will also be assessed using this same kind of
                          process. As this process is implemented, the agency’s priorities should
                          become more clearly defined.

                          By focusing on what is being accomplished and sharing this information
                          with the Congress and other stakeholders, the Park Service can promote a
                          better understanding of (1) the agency’s and each park’s priorities, (2) the
                          links between the agency’s and each park’s priorities, (3) the results
                          achieved with the funds provided, and (4) the shortfalls in performance. In
                          short, greater accountability could be achieved because managers would
                          be held more directly accountable for the results of their decisions.


The Park Service Has      The Park Service is now in the process of implementing GPRA. In
Begun to Implement GPRA   October 1996, the agency issued the final draft of the National Park
                          Service Strategic Plan. This plan includes the Park Service’s mission
                          statement, overall goals, and 5-year goals expressed as measurable
                          outcomes that link managers’ performance to such outcomes. Since then,
                          the agency has developed and is now implementing a GPRA training
                          program for its employees so that park-level staff can develop measurable
                          goals that tie into the servicewide strategic plan and begin to measure
                          their progress in achieving these goals.

                          In the spring of 1997, the Park Service plans to issue the final version of its
                          strategic plan, which will set forth its mission, long-term goals, and means
                          of measuring progress towards achieving these goals. Furthermore, in
                          September 1997, the individual parks are expected to establish the
                          strategic and annual performance plans needed to implement the agency’s
                          strategic plan.




                          7
                           GPRA requires cabinet-level departments to develop strategic plans. The Department of the Interior
                          has chosen to develop strategic plans for each of its bureaus, including the Park Service. The Park
                          Service, in turn, has asked individual parks to develop long- and short-term plans that tie into its
                          overall strategic plan.



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GPRA’s Implementation   Successfully implementing GPRA can provide the Congress and the Park
Raises Issues for       Service with a powerful vehicle for communicating and clarifying
Consideration           expectations about the agency’s mission and long-term goals. Therefore,
                        consultations between the Congress and the Park Service on the agency’s
                        strategic plan are critical. As we recently testified, successful
                        consultations (1) include agency officials who have programmatic
                        knowledge and authority to revise the plan, (2) occur after the parties have
                        reached agreement on the depth and scope of the issues to be discussed,
                        and (3) provide an iterative process for improving the strategic plan.8

                        Furthermore, because the Park Service is decentralized and provides
                        broad discretion to park managers, it faces significant challenges in
                        implementing a top-down accountability system such as that called for by
                        GPRA. To fully integrate GPRA’s management approach, Park Service
                        managers must begin to define in measurable terms how activities at their
                        park contribute toward achieving the servicewide goals established in the
                        Park Service’s strategic plan. In this regard, our prior work has shown that
                        one of the key challenges facing the parks is the development of the
                        baseline data that are needed to measure progress in achieving goals.9

                        Sustained congressional attention to federal agencies’ implementation of
                        GPRA would underscore the importance that the Congress attaches to the
                        success of this process. Both the Congress and all executive branch
                        agencies have a large stake in making the legislation work. Successful
                        implementation will provide the Congress and the Park Service with the
                        management framework and much of the information needed to focus on
                        what is being accomplished with the money provided to the agency, make
                        the hard financial decisions dictated by the current fiscal environment,
                        and improve the ability of the Park Service to deliver its services more
                        effectively and efficiently.


                        We attempted to determine the extent of the Park Service’s reductions in
Extent of Cutbacks in   visitor services over the past 5 years. The extent of such reductions
Services Is Unknown     agencywide is unknown because the Park Service does not routinely track
                        data on national trends in the level of visitor services or other activities
                        provided in the parks. Our work showed that each of the four parks had
                        reduced visitor services at various times over the past 5 years. Moreover,
                        as we reported in 1995, reductions in visitor services have been occurring

                        8
                        Managing for Results: Enhancing the Usefulness of GPRA Consultations Between the Executive
                        Branch and Congress (GAO/T-GGD-97-56, Mar. 10, 1997).
                        9
                         See footnote 2.



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                         in many other parks since at least as far back as 1985.10 In 1995, we
                         reported that there were significant cuts in visitor services at 11 of the 12
                         park units we reviewed.

                         According to the Comptroller of the Park Service, the headquarters office
                         does not routinely track cutbacks in visitor services because park
                         superintendents are responsible for managing their park, including making
                         decisions on visitor services, and therefore are in the best position to
                         weigh the trade-offs in reducing operations at their park. Nevertheless, in
                         1996, in response to a congressional inquiry, the headquarters office
                         attempted to obtain information from park units on such reductions and
                         their effects on visitors and resources for fiscal year 1993 through fiscal
                         year 1996. The Park Service’s records indicated that over 50 parks
                         reported significant cuts in visitor services during fiscal year 1996. The
                         Park Service attributed all of the identified cuts to funding shortages.
                         Examples of cuts in visitor services include the elimination of lifeguard
                         services at some park recreational areas, reduced operating hours or the
                         closure of visitor centers, and the closure of some campgrounds.

                         However, our review showed that some of the data obtained were not
                         accurate and that another attempt by headquarters in January 1997 to
                         obtain updated information on reductions in park operations for fiscal
                         year 1997 produced incomplete results. In the absence of this kind of
                         overall trend information on cutbacks in visitor services, we collected the
                         information at each of the four parks we visited.


All Four Parks Reduced   Over the past 5 years, each of the four parks that we visited reduced
Visitor Services         visitor services. The extent of such reductions varied among the parks
                         during fiscal years 1993 through 1997, although they were most extensive
                         in fiscal year 1996.11 However, in considering the amount and scope of cuts
                         in visitor services it is important to consider this information in the full
                         context of overall park operations. Park managers made the cuts in visitor
                         services as part of a broader effort to match park spending with available
                         funds. In each of the four parks, the cutbacks in visitor services were a
                         relatively small portion of the overall reductions in park operations. Most
                         of the cutbacks occurred in areas such as park maintenance, resource
                         management, and park administration. For example, as noted earlier in


                         10
                           See footnote 2.
                         11
                           Fiscal year 1996 featured not only the budgetary pressures from efforts to reduce the deficit but also
                         numerous continuing resolutions and two funding lapses that closed portions of the government,
                         including the national park system.



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                               this report, in 1996 Yellowstone needed to absorb about $2 million in
                               increased costs. Of this amount, $72,000, or about 3 percent, came from
                               reductions in the operations of visitor service facilities, including a
                               campground and two museums. The rest came from reductions in other
                               park operations. Increased operating funds allowed the park to reopen
                               these visitor service facilities in 1997. Although the proportions differ,
                               similar scenarios played out at the other parks we visited.

                               The following summarizes the cuts in visitor services imposed by the four
                               parks during the most recent 5-year period:

                           •   In 1996, Great Smoky Mountains National Park closed three campgrounds
                               during the winter months and two smaller campgrounds for the whole
                               year. In addition, the park closed one of its visitor centers and staffed two
                               others with uniformed personnel for only 5 hours per day.
                           •   In 1996, Yellowstone National Park cut several visitor services, closing a
                               campground, visitor center, and two museums. In addition, the park did
                               not fund 10 law enforcement positions and eliminated several guided
                               hikes.
                           •   Independence National Historical Park closed several historic buildings to
                               visitors and reduced visiting hours at several other buildings for 3 of the 5
                               years reviewed.
                           •   Olympic National Park made several cuts in visitor services during each of
                               the past 5 years, including reducing visitor center hours, shortening
                               campground seasons, not opening two entrance stations and backcountry
                               trails, and providing fewer law enforcement patrols and interpretative
                               programs.

                               Appendix I provides more detailed information on the four parks’ cuts in
                               visitor services.


Parks Attempted to             Overall, park managers have tried to minimize the impact of operational
Minimize the Impact of         cutbacks on visitors. According to park managers and records at the four
Tight Budgets on Visitor       parks we reviewed, visitor services were generally the last areas to be cut.
                               In all four parks, administrative costs for items such as training, travel, and
Services                       supplies were reduced; maintenance was deferred; positions went unfilled;
                               and other discretionary programs, such as resource management, were
                               reduced before cuts were made in visitor services. Some park managers
                               told us that the services that were cut were selected because their loss
                               would affect the fewest visitors to the parks. For example, at Great Smoky
                               Mountains, three major campgrounds were closed in 1996 during the



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                                     winter months—a period of lower visitation. Also, other campgrounds
                                     were available both inside and outside the park. A visitation survey
                                     conducted at Great Smoky Mountains during the summer of 1996 showed
                                     that 90 percent of the visitors rated visitor services as good or very good.
                                     At Independence, historic buildings that normally received less visitation
                                     were closed or operating hours were reduced so that Independence Hall
                                     and the Liberty Bell—the two historic structures that received the most
                                     visitation—could operate for extended hours during the summer. At
                                     Olympic, park managers told us, the park deferred purchases of supplies
                                     and equipment, such as vehicles, radios, and computers, as well as
                                     employee training, before cutting visitor services. Similarly, Yellowstone
                                     cut supplies and equipment, travel, training, and other administrative
                                     activities before cutting visitor services.


                                     Spending on operations by the Park Service has increased in real terms by
Operating Budget Has                 about 30 percent since 1985.12 This increase is comparable to the increases
Grown More for Park                  for the Fish and Wildlife Service (28 percent) and for federal domestic
Service Than for Most                discretionary spending as a whole (27 percent) but is higher than those for
                                     the other federal land management agencies we examined. For example,
Other Federal Land                   operations spending by the Bureau of Land Management and the Corps of
Management Agencies                  Engineers increased by 5 and 3 percent, respectively. In contrast, real
                                     spending for the Forest Service’s operations has decreased by 24 percent
                                     since 1985. Table I shows the changes in spending for these agencies’
                                     operations from fiscal year 1985 through fiscal year 1997 (estimated).

Table 1: Federal Land Management
Agencies’ Spending for Operations,   In millions of 1992 constant dollars
Fiscal Years 1985-97                 Agency                                                1985           1997a               Change
                                     Corps of Engineers                              $1,681.5          $1,739.2                       3.4%
                                     Forest Service                                  $1,607.4          $1,215.7                  –24.4%
                                     Park Service                                      $812.5          $1,052.3                   29.5%
                                     Bureau of Land
                                     Management                                        $666.7            $702.1                       5.3%
                                     Fish and Wildlife Service                         $435.9            $557.4                   27.9%
                                     Note: Spending is defined as gross obligations.
                                     a
                                         Obligations for fiscal year 1997 are estimated.

                                     Source: President’s budget, fiscal years 1987-98.




                                     12
                                      To adjust the agencies’ spending over the period examined, we used the Gross Domestic Product
                                     implicit price deflator developed by the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.



                                     Page 13                                         GAO/RCED-97-125 Park Management Accountability
              B-276619




              The increase in Park Service spending reflects, in part, an increase in the
              agency’s responsibilities. From 1985 through 1996, the number of park
              units increased from 339 in 1985 to 374. In addition, the boundaries of
              some existing parks expanded, so that total area managed increased from
              79 million to 83 million acres. Other additions to the Park Service’s
              operating responsibilities include an increase in visitation, from an
              estimated 216 million to 266 million visitors per year, plus requirements for
              protecting newly designated endangered species and for complying with
              new regulatory mandates, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of
              1990, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, and more stringent water
              quality standards.

              During the same period, from 1985 through 1996, the responsibilities of the
              other federal land management agencies we reviewed also grew (see app.
              II). The number of wildlife protection units managed by the Fish and
              Wildlife Service increased from 582 to 702, and the area managed by the
              agency increased from 90 million to 92 million acres. In addition, the
              number of visitors to Fish and Wildlife units increased from 24 million to
              29 million. At the Bureau of Land Management, while the number of acres
              managed decreased from 337 million to 264 million, the estimated number
              of visitors increased from about 52 million to 59 million. The number of
              acres managed by the Corps of Engineers changed little. However the
              number of visitors to the Corps’ recreational sites increased from
              172 million to 212 million. The acreage managed by the Forest Service
              grew little, and the number of units managed by the Forest Service
              declined slightly. However, the estimated number of visitors increased
              dramatically, from 541 million in 1985 to 830 million in 1996.

              We gathered this information to provide a gross indication of whether
              other federal land management agencies were growing as much as the
              Park Service. Accordingly, caution must be used in interpreting the data
              on visitation and acreage and in making comparisons across agencies. One
              official we spoke with suggested that visitation data from the 1980s tended
              to be inflated and counting techniques varied greatly across agencies and
              units within agencies. Also, the influence of visitation and acreage on
              operating costs may vary greatly from agency to agency and from unit to
              unit within an agency, depending on how the public land is used and what
              types of facilities are in place.


              Balancing the need to protect and preserve park resources for future
Conclusions   generations while at the same time meeting the needs of hundreds of



              Page 14                          GAO/RCED-97-125 Park Management Accountability
                  B-276619




                  millions of park visitors is, at best, a difficult task. Achieving this balance
                  is made even more difficult by the tight fiscal climate now facing the Park
                  Service and other federal agencies. Managing the national park system
                  under these circumstances requires making choices among competing
                  operating priorities. Within the Park Service, these choices are delegated
                  to the individual park managers and typically involve trade-offs in funding
                  resource management activities, visitor services, or park maintenance. In a
                  decentralized organization that gives managers a great deal of
                  decision-making authority, having a system in place to hold them
                  accountable for the results of their decisions is critical. However, today,
                  the Park Service lacks a system that holds park managers accountable for
                  the results of their decisions. Under GPRA, the Park Service has begun to
                  establish servicewide goals for the park system. The next task will be for
                  the Park Service to begin measuring the individual parks’ progress in
                  achieving these goals. Implementing GPRA can both assist the Congress and
                  the Park Service in reaching agreement on goals and expectations for the
                  agency and help hold the individual parks accountable for achieving their
                  goals.

                  The transition to results-oriented management in the Park Service will be
                  neither easy nor quick. But GPRA’s implementation has the potential for
                  improving the agency’s performance—a particularly vital goal when
                  resources are limited and public demands are high.


                  We provided a draft of this report to the Park Service for review and
Agency Comments   comment. We met with Park Service officials—including the Associate
                  Director for Operations and the Comptroller. The agency generally agreed
                  with the conclusions and the principal findings of the report and provided
                  several clarifying comments that we incorporated where appropriate.


                  To respond to your request and agreements reached with your offices, we
                  met with officials from the Park Service’s headquarters office and from
                  Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Independence National Historical
                  Park, Olympic National Park, and Yellowstone National Park. We also
                  obtained and reviewed pertinent documentation from these officials. We
                  conducted our review from January through March 1997 in accordance
                  with generally accepted government auditing standards. Appendix III
                  provides a more detailed discussion of our objectives, scope, and
                  methodology.




                  Page 15                           GAO/RCED-97-125 Park Management Accountability
B-276619




As agreed with your offices, unless you publicly announce its contents
earlier, we plan no further distribution of this report until 15 days from the
date of this letter. At that time, we will send copies of this report to
interested congressional committees and Members of Congress; the
Secretary of the Interior; the Director of the National Park Service; and
other interested parties. We will make copies available to others upon
request.

Please call me at (202) 512-3841 if you have any questions on matters
discussed in this report. Major contributors to this report are listed in
appendix IV.

Sincerely yours,




Victor S. Rezendes
Director, Energy, Resources,
  and Science Issues




Page 16                           GAO/RCED-97-125 Park Management Accountability
B-276619




List of Requesters

The Honorable Robert Livingston
Chairman, Committee on Appropriations
House of Representatives

The Honorable John R. Kasich
Chairman, Committee on the Budget
House of Representatives

The Honorable Don Young
Chairman, Committee on Resources
House of Representatives

The Honorable Ralph Regula
Chairman, Subcommittee on Interior and
  Related Agencies
Committee on Appropriations
House of Representatives

The Honorable James V. Hansen
Chairman, Subcommittee on National
  Parks and Public Lands
Committee on Resources
House of Representatives




Page 17                       GAO/RCED-97-125 Park Management Accountability
Contents



Letter                                                                                              1


Appendix I                                                                                         20

Visitor Services Cut at
the Four Parks Visited
Appendix II                                                                                        22

Growth in Federal
Land Management
Agencies’
Responsibilities
Appendix III                                                                                       24

Objectives, Scope,
and Methodology
Appendix IV                                                                                        26

Major Contributors to
This Report
Tables                    Table 1: Federal Land Management Agencies’ Spending for                  13
                            Operations, Fiscal Years 1985-97
                          Table II.1: Visits Reported by Federal Land Management                   22
                            Agencies, Fiscal Years 1985-96
                          Table II.2: Acreage Managed by Federal Land Management                   22
                            Agencies, Fiscal Years 1985-96
                          Table II.3: Number of Units Within Federal Land Management               23
                            Agencies, Fiscal Years 1985-96

                          Abbreviations

                          BLM       Bureau of Land Management
                          COE       Corps of Engineers
                          FS        Forest Service
                          FWS       Fish and Wildlife Service
                          GAO       General Accounting Office
                          GPRA      Government Performance and Results Act
                          NPS       National Park Service


                          Page 18                       GAO/RCED-97-125 Park Management Accountability
Page 19   GAO/RCED-97-125 Park Management Accountability
Appendix I

Visitor Services Cut at the Four Parks
Visited


              Great Smoky
              Mountains National           Independence National                                      Yellowstone National
Fiscal year   Park                         Historical Park               Olympic National Park        Park
              a
1993                                       Nine historic buildings       Two entrance stations        Law enforcement patrols
                                           closed to visitors for 3 to   not opened                   and interpretative
                                           7-1/2 months                                               programs reduced
                                                                         Hours and seasons at
                                                                         visitor centers and
                                                                         campgrounds shortened

                                                                         Law enforcement patrols
                                                                         and interpretative
                                                                         programs reduced

                                                                         Trail maintenance
                                                                         deferred
              a                            a
1994                                                                     Some improvement, but        Law enforcement patrols
                                                                         visitor services such as     and interpretative
                                                                         campgrounds,                 programs reduced
                                                                         interpretation activities,
                                                                         and law enforcement
                                                                         patrols operated at the
                                                                         reduced 1993 level
              a                            a
1995                                                                     Several interpretative       Law enforcement patrols
                                                                         programs cut                 and interpretative
                                                                                                      programs reduced
                                                                         Visitor center hours
                                                                         reduced

                                                                         Campground season
                                                                         shortened

                                                                         Law enforcement patrols
                                                                         reduced
1996          One visitor center closed Three historic buildings         Campground season            Norris Geyser Basin
              and converted to a        still closed to visitors and     shortened and several        campground closed
              bookstore                 operating hours cut in           campgrounds closed           (116 sites)
                                        half for five other              during the winter
              Three major               buildings                                                     One visitor center closed
              campgrounds closed                                         Many backcountry trials
              during winter                                              closed                       Two museums closed

              Two small campgrounds                                      Law enforcement patrols Law enforcement patrols
              closed                                                     reduced                 and interpretative
                                                                                                 programs reduced
              Two visitor centers
              staffed with uniformed
              personnel only 5 hours
              per day
1997b         One major campground         Same cuts as for fiscal       Law enforcement patrols No new cutbacks
              still closed during winter   year 1996                     and interpretative
                                                                         programs reduced

                                                                                                       (Table notes on next page)


                               Page 20                                     GAO/RCED-97-125 Park Management Accountability
Appendix I
Visitor Services Cut at the Four Parks
Visited




a
  No significant cuts in visitor services. However, during this 5-year period, all four parks reduced
other personnel costs, cutting seasonal employees, furloughing permanent employees or cutting
temporary employees, and not filling vacant positions. These personnel cuts could affect visitor
services.
b
Cutbacks for fiscal year 1997 are as of March 1997.




Page 21                                       GAO/RCED-97-125 Park Management Accountability
Appendix II

Growth in Federal Land Management
Agencies’ Responsibilities

Table II.1: Visits Reported by Federal
Land Management Agencies, Fiscal         Visits in millions
Years 1985-96                            Agency                                             1985                 1996                Change
                                                                                                                       a
                                         Forest Service                                     540.9               829.8                     53.4%
                                         Park Service                                       216.0               266.0                     23.1%
                                         Bureau of Land                                      51.7                 59.0                    14.1%
                                         Management
                                         Fish and Wildlife Service                           24.0                 29.1                    21.3%
                                         Corps of Engineers                                 172.3b              211.9                     23.0%
                                         Note: Caution must be used in interpreting data on visitation when making comparisons across
                                         agencies. Officials we spoke with and agency documents noted that visitation data from the
                                         1980s tended to be inflated and counting techniques varied greatly across agencies and units
                                         within agencies. Also, the influence of visitation on operating costs may vary greatly from agency
                                         to agency and from unit to unit within an agency, depending on how the public land is used and
                                         what types of facilities are in place.
                                         a
                                             Used 1995 data because 1996 data were not available.
                                         b
                                             Used 1986 data because 1985 data were not available.

                                         Source: President’s budget and agencies’ data.



Table II.2: Acreage Managed by
Federal Land Management Agencies,        Acres in millions
Fiscal Years 1985-96                     Agency                                             1985                 1996                Change
                                         Forest Service                                     191.0               191.6                         0.3%
                                         Park Service                                        79.4                 83.2                        4.8%
                                         Bureau of Land                                     337.1               264.0                   –21.7%
                                         Management
                                         Fish and Wildlife Service                           90.0                 92.3                        2.6%
                                                                                                                       a
                                         Corps of Engineers                                  11.6                 11.6                        0.2%
                                         Note: The same caution that must used in interpreting data on visitation applies to interpreting
                                         data on acreage. Like the influence of visitation on operating costs, the influence of acreage may
                                         vary greatly. See the note to table II.1.
                                         a
                                             Small decline not shown because of rounding.

                                         Source: President’s budget and agencies’ data.




                                         Page 22                                      GAO/RCED-97-125 Park Management Accountability
                                     Appendix II
                                     Growth in Federal Land Management
                                     Agencies’ Responsibilities




Table II.3: Number of Units Within
Federal Land Management Agencies,    Agency                                           1985           1996            Change
Fiscal Years 1985-96                 Forest Service                                    193            185                –4.1%
                                     Park Service                                      339            374                10.3%
                                                                                         a               a                  a
                                     Bureau of Land
                                     Management
                                     Fish and Wildlife Service                         582            702                20.6%
                                                                                         a               a                  a
                                     Corps of Engineers
                                     a
                                         Data not available.

                                     Source: President’s budget and agencies’ data.




                                     Page 23                                   GAO/RCED-97-125 Park Management Accountability
Appendix III

Objectives, Scope, and Methodology


               The objectives of our review were to (1) describe the process used by the
               Park Service to develop budgets and establish operating priorities;
               (2) determine the limitations, if any, of the agency’s priority-setting
               processes at a sample of parks; (3) determine what, if any, implications the
               Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) has for the Park Service;
               (4) provide information on trends in cutbacks of visitor services at the
               parks; and (5) compare funding levels for park operations with those for
               other federal land management agency operations.

               To determine the process used by the Park Service to establish operational
               priorities and any limitations of the process at a sample of parks, we
               interviewed Park Service officials at headquarters, at the four regional
               offices that oversee the parks included in our sample, and at the four
               parks in our sample. We also discussed with Park Service officials how
               park priorities are used in developing budget requests and allocating
               appropriated funds. We reviewed Park Service headquarters and regional
               office directives, guidance, and practices for identifying operational
               priorities; Park Service budget documents; and park planning documents.

               We visited four parks: Great Smoky Mountains National Park,
               Independence National Historical Park, Olympic National Park, and
               Yellowstone National Park. As agreed with your offices, we selected these
               four parks because they (1) include large natural and historical parks,
               (2) are located in different regions of the country, and (3) reported several
               cutbacks in visitor services. We also limited our review to four parks so
               that we could respond to your need for information by early April 1997.
               Although we cannot generalize the results of our work to all 374 park
               units, the parks selected are among the most visible and notable in the
               national park system. Hence, the information collected should provide a
               meaningful indication of how the park system establishes operational
               priorities.

               To respond to the third objective, we reviewed GAO documents on
               implementing GPRA and interviewed officials at Park Service headquarters,
               the four regional offices, and the four parks to discuss how these parks’
               processes for establishing operational priorities relate to GPRA’s
               requirements and to obtain information on the status of the Park Service’s
               implementation of GPRA. We did not specifically review the Park Service’s
               processes for implementing GPRA.

               To obtain information on trends in cutbacks in visitor services, we held
               discussions with officials from Park Service headquarters, the four



               Page 24                           GAO/RCED-97-125 Park Management Accountability
Appendix III
Objectives, Scope, and Methodology




regional offices, and the four parks included in our review and obtained
documentation related to this issue. As agreed with your offices, we
requested trend information for the past 5 years. Also, because
servicewide trend information was not available from Park Service
headquarters, we collected data on cutbacks in visitor services from the
four parks we visited.

With respect to the last objective, we interviewed officials and obtained
budget trend data from the Park Service (NPS), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service (FWS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Army Corps
of Engineers (COE), and the Forest Service (FS). As agreed with your
offices, we obtained budget data for fiscal years 1985 through 1997. The
budget data consisted of gross obligations for the operations and
maintenance accounts of each agency.13 We adjusted the obligations data
for inflation by using the Gross Domestic Product implicit price deflator
developed by the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic
Analysis. We then compared the inflation-adjusted change in the Park
Service’s obligations over this period with the similarly adjusted changes
in the obligations of the other federal land management agencies. We also
obtained information that would provide an indication of the growth in the
numbers of public visits, acres, and units managed by these agencies.




13
  The budget accounts used were as follows: FS—National Forest System (12-1106); NPS—Operation of
the National Park Service (14-1036); BLM—Management of Lands and Resources (14-1109) and Oregon
and California Land Grants (14-1116); FWS—Resource Management (14-1611); and COE—Operations
and Maintenance, General (96-3123).



Page 25                                   GAO/RCED-97-125 Park Management Accountability
Appendix IV

Major Contributors to This Report


                       Cliff Fowler
Resources,             Walter J. Hess
Community, and         Frank Kovalak
Economic               Ned H. Woodward

Development Division
                       Elizabeth H. Curda
Accounting and         Michael J. Curro
Information
Management Division
                       Brent Hutchison
Seattle Regional       Paul Staley
Office




(141013)               Page 26              GAO/RCED-97-125 Park Management Accountability
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