A bipartisan budget deal approved last week in Congress provides $2.6 billion for the National Park Service, ensuring that parks will have funds to remain open at least through September.
That’s welcome news to residents in gateway communities around Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. But federal lawmakers have a long way to go in regaining the confidence of one former park superintendent.
Mary Gibson Scott retired in November after nearly a decade as the chief administrator for Grand Teton National Park.
In a wide-ranging interview last year given shortly after she retired, Scott singled out the chaos brought on by federal budget battles as a major challenge during her tenure, calling federal budget dysfunction an ongoing threat to the health of national parks across the country.
“One of the biggest challenges is not having a budget in advance of the fiscal year,” she said. “This governing by crisis has got to stop. It’s not how government is supposed to work.”
Scott said the disruptive results of budget conflicts like across-the-board spending cuts under Sequestration and last fall’s two-week partial federal shutdown were partly the result of “people not holding their elected representatives accountable.”
Scott said she spoke to people whose plans were disrupted by budget cuts last year, and asked if they had contacted their representatives.
“‘No, they won’t listen. They never listen,’ they told me. Well, that’s where government is breaking down,” she said.
Last week’s budget deal essentially restores Park Service funding to 2012 levels, a move that many park advocates said is better than the outlook under sequestration, but still not back to 2010 budget levels before two subsequent years of cuts.
Those concerned about the federal debt point out that every agency must learn to do more with less, and agency heads should look for creative solutions to funding shortages.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell did just that this week, as she attended the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Salt Lake City, where she decried Washington gridlock on budget issues, according to the Associated Press.
Jewell asked outdoor gear manufacturers to help fund Interior programs that put 100,000 young people to work each year on federal public lands.
Youth involvement in Grand Teton was an area of focus for Scott. Grand Teton in 2011 launched NPS Academy, a program that introduces college students to a range of Park Service career paths. The program has since been rolled out to other parks, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Kenai Fjords National Park.
Grand Teton’s Pura Vida program also began during Scott’s tenure, connecting Latino youth with the park through a range of outdoor work projects. Both programs are made possible through substantial local support.
That kind of financial support for Grand Teton exists in part because it is “not a park that’s in the middle of nowhere,” Scott said. “It has an engaged, influential community that can be incredibly generous.”
Community financial support helped build the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center, fund seasonal rangers to manage traffic around wildlife and “do all kinds of things the Park Service would never be able to do alone,” she said.
But that wealth and influence has, at times, resulted in some local residents engaging in what Scott described as intimidating tactics aimed at trying to suppress public comment on key issues.
“We need to make sure that all voices are heard,” she said. “Grand Teton is not a county park and it’s not a state park. It’s a national park, so all Americans have a say in what occurs here.”
One of the most contentious issues in Grand Teton remains the practice of seasonal hunts inside the park aimed at curbing elk populations.
The program is authorized in Grand Teton’s establishing legislation, Scott said, and the park superintendent lacks the authority to change that.
“It’s an extremely distasteful program to have to support in a national park, and we’re the only national park that has something like that,” she said.
Park staff do not like working to support the hunt, preferring to manage elk numbers through natural processes, she said, adding that supplemental feeding of elk along park borders makes the problem worse.
Increased numbers of gray wolves and grizzly bears around Jackson Hole could help play a growing role in naturally reducing in elk numbers.
But some local residents will have to come to terms with seeing wolves and bears moving through the landscape, as well as occasional conflicts with those animals, she said.
Whether it’s conflicts with carnivores, issues like elk hunting in the park or continuing budget problems, future Grand Teton superintendents will always look to voters and elected officials for informed engagement, Scott said.
“Jefferson said that democracy is reliant on a well-educated electorate,” she said. “And people sent to state houses and Capitol Hill need to be held accountable. So I’m concerned about the lack of civic awareness at times by people who are not real educated about how their government should work.”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].