A survey conducted by a group of retired National Park Service employees concludes that strained budgets have rendered the national parks less safe for visitors and have left wildlife, historic and cultural resources less protected.
The survey found that staff reductions had eliminated backcountry patrols, lengthened emergency response times and decreased monitoring of protected species and park resources.
"This is not just about some more litter and some outhouses being locked. This has now escalated to visitor safety," said Bill Wade, a former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and now an official with the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, which conducted the survey of 37 of the largest parks.
"The budget crisis in our national parks is real, and it will be felt keenly by park visitors this summer," Wade said. "Visitors and resources at national parks will be put at greater risk this summer than in the past due to extensive full-time emergency and law enforcement staff cuts."
The report, titled "Reality Check: What Visitors to America's National Parks Will Experience During Summer 2006," was released Thursday. It follows a survey released in April by the federal General Accounting Office, which found that, despite modest budget increases, the national parks and recreation areas have actually been losing ground when budgets are adjusted for inflation.
The latest study cited examples from surveys of national parks from April to the beginning of June. Among the findings: At Alaska's Denali National Park and Preserve, ambulance calls increased 38% last year, but the response staff since then has been drastically cut; and at Florida's Biscayne National Park, the number of patrols keeping an eye on park resources has been halved.
At Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin, there are no law enforcement patrols or resource protection operations. Law enforcement rangers no longer live on islands where visits occur, and any emergency response is dispatched from the mainland only.
Bill Supernaugh, former superintendent of Badlands National Park and a member of the retiree group, said that without sufficient rangers on patrol in remote areas of large wilderness parks, visitors will lack a "safety net."
"If they are in the backcountry, with reduction of ranger patrol, welfare checks, compliance check -- there is a potential for some increase in risk to visitors who suffer some type of injury or get lost," he said. "There could be a delay in getting information to officials to render assistance."
The report said that having fewer rangers in the field could lead to wildlife poaching, defacing and theft of archeological sites, and destruction of park resources. The earlier survey also found that across the country, parks were closing campgrounds, reducing the hours of visitors' centers and forgoing regular maintenance at restrooms and other park buildings.
In addition, the parks face a maintenance backlog of about $5 billion, with infrastructure at many of the 380 national parks deteriorating, according to federal studies.
The National Park Service responded to Thursday's survey by acknowledging that "these are challenging times."
But in its written statement, the department was upbeat, noting a 95% visitor satisfaction rating. The agency is launching a summer promotion campaign, "National parks: The place to be for family fun."
"Individual parks and the NPS as a whole have strived to become more innovative and efficient to ensure that basic visitor services meet public expectations," the statement said.