Article for Sierra magazine on the effects of privatizing park service employees.

Mid-century National Park Service uniform.


John Meyer first got hooked on fish as a boy wading the streams of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Today, when the National Park Service biologist speaks, it’s in a slow current of words rippled by his enthusiasms, especially the prospect of salmon returning to the upper Elwha River. When the conversation meanders away from fish, he curves it back. 

Some might find Meyer single-minded, but his passion has paid off: Under his guidance, Olympic National Park has emerged as one of the best hopes for restoring the wild runs that once filled western rivers with millions of spawning steelhead and chinook, sockeye, chum, coho, and pink salmon. 

Middle-aged, Meyer has a short-cropped gray beard and wears a flannel shirt, jeans, and aviator glasses. The floor of his pickup truck is freckled with generations of river mud and latte stains. "Salmon affect bears and eagles and 135 other vertebrate species," he says. "They feed in the ocean and when they return to freshwater to die, they have marine isotopes in their carcasses that you can trace through the ecosystem. The number of bald-eagle eggs and chick vitality have been directly correlated to the number of returning salmon."

Over the decades, dams and timber clearcuts destroyed fish habitats. As the salmon population declined, so did the rest of the forest’s flora and fauna. Since 1986, when he was hired at Olympic, Meyer has labored toreverse that pattern. Based on studies that he and others conducted, two dams on Washington’s Elwha River will be destroyed in 2007—the first ones in the nation to be removed specifically to restore fish habitat. 

In his early research on the Elwha, Meyer’s team worked side by side with privately contracted scientists. Both groups initially assumed that fish passages around the dams might bring back the upstream runs. But the more he tracked the fish, the more Meyer became convinced the passages wouldn’t allow enough salmon into the upper river to restore their populations. When he presented his data, the private team balked.

"They were good scientists, good biologists, but they just had a different perspective," Meyer says. Since the other scientists were under contract to the dams’ owners, they needed results that didn’t threaten the dams. Their objections fueled local opposition to the dams’ removal. It was then that Meyer learned if he was to be an effective park biologist, he had to defend the fish, not just study them. 

Now, under a Bush administration initiative, natural-resource scientists like Meyer, along with thousands of other National Park Service employees, may lose their jobs to private contractors. More than a quarter of the Park Service’s 20,000 jobs could be privatized in just a few years. 

cross Puget Sound from Olympic, Mount Rainier National Park would be one of the hardest hit by the Bush plan. Claiming it would eviscerate a dedicated corps of employees, Mount Rainier superintendent David Uberuaga calls the initiative "the gravest contemporary threat to the park’s resources that we face—greater than invasive species, or air pollution, or any other." 

Under the plan, private firms can replace not only park scientists like Meyer, but archaeologists, museum curators, electricians, plumbers, gardeners, historians, and the fee collectors who greet park visitors at the gate. Part of a broader administration effort affecting 850,000 federal workers, these employees would either compete for their jobs with private companies or be replaced directly; some have already been replaced. To facilitate that plan, called "competitive sourcing," President Bush is revising government contracting rules to favor the private sector. The Park Service director’s boss, Interior Department secretary Gale Norton, quickly embraced the initiatives. Soon after taking office, she outlined plans to competitively source 3,500 Interior positions within two years. 

Norton and her political appointees say the plan will improve the parks through greater efficiency. But many Park Service managers claim that politics, not performance, is driving the Bush initiative. "There’s a definite ideological overtone to it," says retired Yellowstone superintendent Bob Barbee. He points out that concessionaires already employ a third more employees in the parks than the agency itself. "Certain things lend themselves to private contracting," says Barbee. "In Yellowstone, we turned a large number of campground operations over to a concessionaire and plowed the income back into campground facilities." 

But Barbee and others say the Bush plan goes too far, cutting at the heart of the Park Service’s mission. In 1916, Congress charged the new agency with conserving "the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and [providing] for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." A surprising number of Park Service employees today can and do recite their mission word for word.

"National parks are a noble enterprise, one of the really great ideas in American life," Barbee says. "We need a strong cadre of professionals steeped in Park Service traditions and with a commitment to its goals. That shouldn’t be bartered away. It should be inviolate. It’d be like turning over the Army to a bunch of mercenaries."

Destry Jarvis has spent 32 years working on behalf of the national parks, including 8 as assistant director under Bruce Babbitt during the Clinton administration. He agrees with Barbee that competitive sourcing is meant to weaken the agency’s preservation ethic. "A more pliant agency would make life easier" for the Bush administration, he says.

Within the Park Service, the privatization plan is despised and feared. Agency morale is dismal. In a memo leaked last April, Park Service director Fran Mainella warned that the plan would redirect funds and staff away from vital functions, with "serious consequences for visitor services and seasonal operations." In response, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee surprised the Bush administration by pushing legislation that denies the Department of Interior any funds for competitive sourcing next year. Incensed Bush officials and conservative lobbyists vow to fight the bill this fall and will urge a presidential veto if it passes the Senate. The upcoming battle will shape the future of our national parks.

Seeds of the current controversy were planted after Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. When Reagan selected James Watt as Interior secretary, Gale Norton was his protégé at the anti-environmental Mountain States Legal Foundation. (Watt later hired Norton as a lawyer for the department, where she was active in efforts to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.) Current deputy secretary J. Steven Griles also served in Reagan’s Interior Department, where he pushed for offshore drilling in California. Between his government jobs, Griles worked as an executive for a coal and gas lobbying firm that still pays him $284,000 a year.

Libertarian think tanks like the Reason Public Policy Institute provided intellectual cover for these partisans. Its associates have produced policy papers and op-eds arguing that private interests and the market do a better job of managing natural resources than public agencies. Lynn Scarlett, now Norton’s assistant secretary in charge of the competitive-sourcing initiative, served as the president of the Reason Foundation before joining the Bush administration. This year, she told Interior Department employees, "Competitive sourcing’s purpose is not to eliminate jobs, nor to thoughtlessly contract out work for the sake of contracting out." Although senior park officials say she has been consistent in that attitude, under her leadership Reason advocated privatization of much of the federal workforce—and still does. A recent Reason newsletter was headlined "Privatizing 850,000 Federal Jobs," and went on to boast about the intellectual support and practical assistance the foundation gives Bush officials leading the privatization drive.

For the Bush administration, competitive sourcing bestows several political advantages. One is to reward GOP donors. For example, big engineering companies stand to increase the number of contracts they receive to build or maintain park facilities. Their lobbying group, the American Council of Engineering Companies, contributed $757,000 to national candidates in the last two election cycles, with about twice as much going to Republicans as Democrats. The group has focused on the Park Service for contracts, recently inviting the agency’s contracting chief to address its members on opportunities opening up under the Bush initiative.

The administration was impressed enough with ACEC to hire its veteran lobbyist, Jack Kalavritinos, as the principal official in charge of its government-wide competitive-sourcing plan. Kalavritinos, who regularly consults with the Reason Foundation, has stated he would be happy if 40 percent of the targeted federal positions were contracted out. That represents a windfall in potential income to ACEC members.

One of those members alone, CH2M HILL, contributed as much to Republicans as did the lobbying group as a whole. And one of its executives, Robert Card, left his position to become the assistant secretary of the Energy Department in the Bush administration. Companies like CH2M HILL operate in the civilian sphere in much the same way as those President Eisenhower famously described as the "military-industrial complex." Government contracts are notoriously bureaucratic to secure and administer, so companies with the resources and experience to master the process have an edge. They gain further advantage by hiring former government officials who have administered the rules in question. The door revolves the other way when firms are able to place their former officers in top regulatory spots in government. The net result is that, while Kalavritinos and others trumpet legitimate benefits of competition to government performance, the process itself serves to restrict competition to a few big players, who may also be the advocates’ former employers.

Like Halliburton and Bechtel, which had an inside track for contracts to rebuild in postwar Iraq, CH2M HILL is on a "preferred list" of companies to receive federal contracts. That helped it win a $5 million "Blanket Purchase Agreement" to provide consulting and management services to the National Park Service on competitive sourcing. 

Professor Charles Tiefer, who teaches government contracting at the University of Baltimore School of Law, says the Bush administration has revised its contracting rules in a way that tilts the playing field to favor private contractors and encourage patronage. Among other things, the rules speed up the bidding process, which, he says, makes it more likely that private contractors will prevail. "Speed is key. If you can do it quickly, you can do more of it," Tiefer says.

These revisions allow companies with higher-cost bids to win on other criteria. "For example, if a competition turns on who has the best information technology, the private contractor can win, and with bigger profit, because the public agency simply won’t allow its employees to rent or buy the latest stuff," says Tiefer. "Those who evaluate bids can choose whom they want." And the rules place much of that decision-making at the assistant secretary level, which is politically appointed. With expanded opportunities to reward political donors, Tiefer expects the new rules to "serve the political agenda of those at the top."

The Bush privatization push also removes regulatory obstacles for GOP-favored industries with poor environmental records. As the resource-protection ethic that binds Park Service employees is weakened, federal protections opposed by senior department officials would be less likely to be enforced. And private contractors would be unlikely to rock the boat when their profits depend on a good standing with the department’s political leadership.


Even before privatization, Interior officials worked to undermine the Park Service ethic. The coal industry, for example, contributed enormous sums to Bush’s election campaign and helped him win in West Virginia, a Democratic state. In turn, Bush halted U.S. involvement in ratifying the Kyoto global-warming treaty and weakened environmental rules for coal-fired plants and mountaintop-removal mining. Encouraged by such White House energy policies, coal is experiencing a major resurgence, with an estimated 90 new power plants in the works.

These new coal-fired plants are frequently sited in remote regions that border national parks or other protected wilderness areas. Such facilities ultimately need to get a green light from the Interior Department in order to operate. In Yellowstone and Mammoth Cave, Park Service scientists recently determined that proposed coal-fired power plants near their borders would cause unacceptable harm to the parks and recommended against awarding permits. In both cases senior political officials at the department overturned those findings. At Mammoth Cave, Deputy Secretary Griles, the former coal lobbyist, worked personally with Park Service director Mainella to negotiate a deal with Peabody Energy. At Yellowstone, a department political appointee overruled Park Service scientists after the plant owner organized a major GOP fundraiser with Vice President Dick Cheney.

In addition to repaying political favors, the Bush administration’s privatization initiative could weaken public-employee unions, which generally support Democratic candidates. With fewer members, the unions’ campaign war chests would be depleted, while the initiative itself ties up union resources in defending its members.

The success of competitive sourcing depends on the idea that private contractors are no different from mission-driven public employees. But a landmark report on the parks by a national commission came to the opposite conclusion. Published in 1991, on the 75th anniversary of the act that created the National Park Service, the report laid out a vigorous plan for parks in the next century. Called the Vail Agenda, it began, "Without question, [the National Park Service’s] greatest strength is its employees." They are, it said, drawn to the challenge of protecting the nation’s natural and cultural resources, and feel a personal stake in upholding their responsibilities, despite a substandard pay scale and "the common frustrations associated with bureaucracies and politics."

Ralph Bell is living proof of that ethic. At Mount Rainier National Park, visitors frequently pull over at its entrance to snap their picture in front of the park’s historic log sign. Bell is Mount Rainier’s sign maker. Several hundred of the park’s 4,500 signs need annual repair or replacement because of the severe weather and the plows that thrust a thousand pounds of snow at a time off the roads and onto his shop’s handiwork. 

Bell is a former police officer and avid climber who came to Mount Rainier two decades ago and stayed because he loved it. He designed a home from logs he cut and planed, then invited 20 friends from the community to help him raise it (70 showed up). When there are power outages, he assists the park’s electrical crew, which is known for hiking to power lines during snowstorms over river footbridges at night carrying 50-pound packs. A recent photograph shows them scaling poles located on a sheer cliff.

With a master’s degree in sports medicine, Bell also manages the employee fitness center and serves on a critical-response unit that assists employees and climbers after bad accidents. (On average, two to three people die on the mountain each year.) Two years ago, Bell counseled a man who hiked off the mountain for help after three of his friends had fallen. The man knew that one had died, but didn’t know the fate of the other two. Bell invited him to stay the night at his home and spent the next horrible day with him waiting and listening to the radio for news of the rescue. When it came, it was bad, and Bell accompanied the man to the coroner to identify his friends.

Under competitive sourcing, Bell may be laid off within a year. 

Are employees like him good candidates for privatization? E. S. Savas is a professor of public affairs at Baruch College and the author of Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships. His research suggests that privatizing many tasks of park departments can be productive and cost-effective. "The point is not public versus private but monopoly versus competition," he says. "It’s not that the public sector is inferior. All monopolies tend to become fat, dumb, and lazy." He adds, "The biggest factor for success in private versus public competitions is that you can write clear and unambiguous service descriptions so the private contractor can respond. Second, they must be easy to monitor." 

But maintenance workers like Mount Rainier’s Ralph Bell or resource specialists like Olympic’s John Meyer don’t fit that description. They work independently in remote locations, which makes describing their jobs and monitoring their performance complex. In line with their mission-driven ethic, many employees wear multiple hats. In Badlands National Park, for example, the maintenance crew herds buffalo in the summer. Others double as emergency medical technicians or as firefighters. (At least one Park Service manager is worried that the nation’s firefighting capacity will be compromised by the privatization push.)

Bell says that he welcomes competition—if it’s fair. He is always looking for ways to run his sign shop better, faster, and less expensively, he says, but worries that under the Bush initiative much of what he does in the park won’t count toward the bottom line.

Another irony of the plan is that it doesn’t aim for any on-the-ground result like better inventories of plants and animals, or improved visitor education, or more salmon in the upper Elwha. The only specified goal is saving money—and it may not even do that.

In promoting competitive sourcing, Bush officials regularly cite savings of 30 percent. A comprehensive two-year study conducted for Congress by the General Accounting Office reached a different conclusion. In June, the GAO reported, "Competitions took longer than projected, costs and resources required for competitions were underestimated, [and] determining and maintaining reliable estimates of savings was difficult." In some cases, money was lost. At the Department of Defense, where most studies have been conducted, an inspector general earlier this year found that bidding errors involving an accounting office of 650 privatized employees will actually cost taxpayers $30 million.

The short-term costs are more easily calculated. In an April memo, Park Service director Mainella estimated the up-front expenses for the first round of competitive sourcing at $3 million. Much of that money will be shaved from park maintenance—an area candidate Bush accused the Clinton administration of neglecting.

Systemwide studies conducted by the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association conclude that to adequately protect their resources, the parks need more staff and roughly a third more funding. (To cite just one example, there is no geologist at the Grand Canyon.) The NPCA strongly opposes the competitive-sourcing initiative. 

Mount Rainier’s David Uberuaga is Ralph Bell’s boss. An MBA-holder as well as an outdoor enthusiast, Uberuaga has worked on past initiatives to improve the Park Service’s efficiency. He says that for park employees to win a competitive bidding process, he will inevitably have to reduce staff. Either way, he says, the park loses. "It’s good for all citizens if we maximize the use of tax dollars. But folks in Washington are really trying to cut money out of the parks’ budgets or to actually privatize jobs." Indeed, the Interior Department has already privatized 900 employees without any competitive bidding at all.

If he were simply directed to run the park more frugally, Uberuaga says, "I’m fine with that. That doesn’t threaten the culture and dynamics of the organization. But if the type of people that we have and the passion they have for the parks were lost, it would threaten the nonhuman species—the ones who can’t talk. It’s our job to protect these resources, for current generations, and for those people who aren’t even born."

Kerry Tremain is a writer in Berkeley, California. His exposé on corruption in the Presidio Trust, the quasi-private agency that helps the Park Service manage the Presidio of San Francisco, was a National Magazine Award finalist last year.