When a stalwart fiscal conservative like Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) attacks mismanagement and irresponsible spending at the National Park Service, we can expect friends of the parks to bristle and get defensive.
But that shouldn't stop us from having a conversation, because the report that Coburn released on the Park Service last week makes some valid points that are worth talking about.
The first thing to be said is that the 208-page report, titled "Parked," is not a partisan screed against the opposition party, the executive branch, lazy bureaucrats or "big government." Rather, Coburn puts the blame for many park woes squarely on "members of Congress on both sides of the aisle" for jockeying to get park projects in their home districts while deliberately underfunding unglamorous items like the maintenance budget.
The shortfall this year, he said, comes to $256 million, adding to what he called an "enormous $11.5 billion deferred maintenance backlog."
Coburn called for a top-to-bottom review to close the maintenance funding gap, partly by fee increases and partly by changing some management practices. He even suggested a re-evaluation of some smaller parks and sites to determine if they could be more appropriately or more efficiently managed outside the National Park Service.
He also questioned the efficiency of some Park Service practices, including fee collection, an area where administrative costs are as high as 32%.
Friends of the parks have every reason to be wary of proposals such as these. They could lead to unfair fee increases, a rollback in the size of the park system, reductions in services, or even the exposure of park sites or potential sites to the risk of commercial development.
The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees immediately denounced the report for advocating a "slash-and-burn approach," but we think that overstates the case.
If Coburn's report can stimulate an honest dialogue about improving the park system, we're all for it, but not if Coburn and his colleagues on Capitol Hill are merely looking to reduce the appropriation and shift the cost burden to park users. If increased user fees are on the table, then increased appropriations have to be on the table, too.
Woody Guthrie and Ken Burns were both right. This land is our land, and our national parks are America's best idea. Everybody is entitled to walk up to the rim of the Grand Canyon, take a deep breath and just get lost in the wonder of it.
The fee for that right now is $25 per vehicle, or $12 per person. And that's enough.