Even a cursory glance at the strategic planning documents now in use by federal and state recreation agencies shows them to be under heavy pressure to change direction and improve performance.  In August, 1999, in a speech at Mount Rainier National Park the Director of the National Park Service pleaded for sympathy from Park Service employees and from the public as the agency undertakes a major reorientation of its mission.  In 1997, the California Department of Parks and Recreation frankly admitted that it faced "continual pressure to cut costs and improve services," and that in the face of that pressure the Department was unsure which way its major stakeholders wanted it to turn.

Federal and state recreation agencies have arrived at this point by different routes and for different reasons.  In the case of the National Park Service there was a long period after the passage of the Organic Act of 1916 during which the agency enjoyed wide discretion.  An open ended management regime made sense for the national parks.  Resources were abundant in relation to demand.  Recreational behavior, constrained by mobility and crude equipment, made little impact on the parks.  And a division of labor with states and localities in the provision of recreation services meant that most people used nearby parks rather than the relatively remote units of the federal system.  Americans were happy to leave the management of the parks to the agency experts.

After World War II, material prosperity and enhanced mobility caused recreational demand to surge.  New units such as seashores, lakeshores, and national recreation areas were created and all the federal recreation agencies, including the National Park Service, felt pressure to open their existing planning and decision making processes to public scrutiny and participation.  The most dramatic shift in this direction stemmed from the Wilderness Act of 1964, which constrained agency discretion by laying out management standards, reconstituting relationships with important political constituencies, and opening the door to litigation.  The National Park Service must now also contend with protection and preservation mandates, such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.  

Faced with increased demands for access and use as well as an insistence that park resources remain unimpaired, the agency has sought refuge in science, more so in recent years than ever before.  It remains unclear, however, how successful the National Park Service can be by insisting that its job is to follow the dictates of science to preserve park resources "above all else."

By contrast, the California Department of Parks and Recreation must serve more than seventy million visitors a year to the two hundred and seventy-five park units scattered across the state.  There is little question that people must come first and the Department must pay very careful, even precise, attention to the economy and efficiency with which it provides a very wide array of recreation services.  The state parks have been created from private lands, not from the public domain, and for the most part they have had to be purchased.  Until the first state park bond act passed in 1928, acquisitions were small, piecemeal, and chiefly oriented towards either historic preservation or the satisfaction of day trip and weekend visitors from the state's major urban centers.  

The modern state park system dates from the late 1950s and early 1960s, when plans were made to respond to the same burgeoning demand for outdoor recreation that affected federal recreation agencies, too.  The Department sought to diversify, by adding wildland parks, for example, and by taking advantage of the opportunities for active recreation provided by the reservoir facilities of the Central Valley Project, which began to come on line at about this time.  There has been no massive infusion of capital into the state park system, however, since the voters approved a quarter of a billion dollars in 1974.  The Department has been forced to restructure, to reassess its core operations, to accept the discipline of performance based budgeting, and to turn to volunteerism to keep service levels high.

Thus, while it is still possible for the National Park Service to tell itself and its many publics that the care and management of resources comes first the state Department of Parks and Recreation is first and foremost in the business of managing people.  The following pages explore the consequences of subjecting these two different agencies to the same discipline of performance based planning and budgeting.


 November 29, 1999e-mail: |