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May 10, 2023

King Pushes Parks Director to Secure Future of America’s Great Outdoors

Parks Subcommittee Chairman highlights need for action on repairs, recruitment, and modernizing park visitation

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine), Chairman of the Senate National Parks Subcommittee, today led a Subcommittee hearing with National Park Service (NPS) Director Charles Sams to discuss a range of challenges and opportunities facing America’s iconic public recreation areas. During the hearing, Chairman King pressed Director Sams on properly funding maintenance efforts, maintaining a sufficient NPS workforce, and managing growing park visitation.

Chairman King began his questioning by urging the Director to get “the maintenance budget right.”

“Both the Vice Chair and I talked about deferred maintenance. There's a rule of thumb, Mr. Director, in the private sector, that you should be doing two to four percent of the value of your assets as an ongoing maintenance budget. Otherwise, you're going in a hole. It's hard to get a fix on what the value over all of the assets of the National Park Service, but it appears that we're below one percent now in terms of what we're doing, in terms of maintenance,” said Senator King. “So let's talk about getting the maintenance budget right so that we're not digging the hole deeper in the hopes of a future Great American Outdoors Act.”

“We're doing better calculations of how we're doing the deferred maintenance. That's first and foremost, we weren't really using industry standards… That being said, we also know that over the last 30-40 years, the maintenance costs that you had been seeing in deferred maintenance really was just the band aid effect. Meaning our on the ground maintenance staff were looking at what would it take just to keep it going, rather than looking at what would take to do surgery on this particular matter,” replied Director Sams. “As we've calculated maintenance, it did, in fact, double in price. And that was also a surprise to me. I now trust the data that actually is being inputted into the system to better manage this issue.”

This budget has already been submitted, it's going to be worked through the appropriations process. But I sincerely urge you, the next budget, we should see a growth in annual maintenance in order to prevent the development of further deferred maintenance in the future,” Senator King concluded.

“Yes, sir,” Director Sams agreed.  

Continuing his questioning, Chairman King asked if the NPS is facing the same workforce shortages that are impacting businesses and industries across the country.

“On staffing, how are you doing on recruiting? Every business I talk to is having difficulty recruiting,” continued Senator King. “Are you able to fill these new positions that we've authorized?”

“That is one of the issues that is the biggest challenge for us. We're using every tool available in our tool chest to be able to recruit and bring in the best and the brightest and the most diverse workforce that really reflect who America is in our national park system,” Director Sams replied. “That being said, we do have some impediments. The market has been very tight for all employers. We're trying to figure out our best ways to entice folks to come into the service. In that end, with the great support of the Inflation Reduction Act and the 500 million, we're bringing in over 30 recruiters to go out and meet people where they're at in colleges and trade schools, to be able to start recruiting those folks to come in.”

“We're looking again at exactly what tools we might need enhancement on and plan on coming back and talking with you directly about that,” said Senator King. “I also serve on the Armed Services Committee and the military is having exactly the same problem… One of the things that they’re talking about is that mission is an important part of recruitment. It's not just about money or benefits. And it seems to me you're not defending the country, but the mission of the national parks is something that should be attractive to young people as a career. Is that emphasized in your recruiting efforts?”

“Absolutely. I think our best recruiters are our folks in uniform in the green and gray. They show and demonstrate the passion that they have for the our mission as a service. And that does attract a lot of folks,” agreed Director Sams. “I would say the folks that we have recruited over the last year and the new staff that I've met out in the field, they talk about being mission driven and the work that we have done since 1916 and will continue to do. I think that has been a very attractive way of recruiting new members.”

Chairman King concluded his questioning by urging Director Sams to invest in new technologies that can help raise awareness of lesser known parks and ease overcrowding.

“One of the major challenges facing the parks as we come out of the pandemic, of course, is overcrowding is visitation, particularly at certain parks,” Senator King warned. “Two areas that I've been interested in: one is the Park Service to publicize the less well-known parks to try to divert some visitation, not to say ‘don't go to Yellowstone or don't go to Acadia or don't go to Yosemite.’ But ‘here are some great places that perhaps you don't know about.’ You can paraphrase Ken Burns, ‘America’s best idea and some of America's best kept secrets.’ So publicizing some of these lesser-known parks just to spread the visitation somewhat.”

“The other is technology,” Senator King continued. “Many of us use an app called Waze that tells us when there's congestion ahead. I've always thought a Waze for national parks would be an important contribution because somebody could look on their phone and say, well, there's a line to get into Glacier today, so perhaps we'll divert and go to another park or another state park in the area. The Park Service is now implementing online app-based admission passes, but think about this a way of alerting people to congestion. That's a technology that's out there. If they can tell you there's a truck turned over five miles away, they can also tell you there's a long line to get up Cadillac Mountain.”

“Yes, Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the efforts of both you and Senator Daines in helping us tackle that issue,” replied Director Sams. “I also want to thank the National Park Foundation, who's also been helping us with funding and looking at how we can improve our app so that we can have more of that in-stream data so people can make an informed decision, and also how we highlight those lesser-known parks or the parks that haven't been seen. We remain committed to collaborating with, of course, local communities and tribal governments and partners to find solutions to improve the quality and diversity of the visitor experience. Planning and design efforts, social science partnerships, and pilot strategies are targeted to support the changing visitation and desired experiences, protecting resources, and, of course, better connect visitors to parks, including historically underrepresented and excluded communities.”

As Chair of the Senate National Parks Subcommittee, Senator King has been a vocal advocate for preserving public lands and encouraging outdoor recreation. Senator King helped lead the passage the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) into law; the legislation includes the Restore Our Parks Act – a bill led by King – and the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) Permanent Funding Act. Because of his work, in 2020, Senator King was awarded the inaugural National Park Foundation (NPF) “Hero” Award. The historic legislative package continues Senator King’s career-long focus on conservation efforts, dating back to his work prior to running for elected office through his years as Governor and his service in the Senate.

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