I had the good fortune to have a conversation with a veteran park ranger in the Oregon State Park System one morning on the coast.
The occasion was the flooding of the parks following record rains in October and November. The ranger was roaming the park trying to figure out drainage solutions to prevent the campground from being under water.
It was clear from our impromptu conversation that he is a committed public servant and consummate professional. After 35 years in the system though, he was now counting his days to retire and move on.
Unsolicited, he gave me a pocket history of the Oregon Parks. I was struck by the important parallels in time and motivation with the history of our National Parks, so well documented by Ken Burns, Douglas Brinkley, and others.
Not the least of these was the importance of a single and zealous champion to the creation of a parks system.The Oregon State Parks were founded by Samuel Boardman, a visionary who happened to be working for the highway commission, not natural resources, at the time. Boardman established the park system in 1929 in the throes of the depression, the most difficult time to get public and private support for such a venture. Before he retired in 1950, Boardman had assembled 181 properties and built an incomparable natural resource.
Oregon Parks are now the most visited and the most extensive state system in the U.S. There is barely room on the state map to identifythe huge number of parks, particularly along the Oregon Coast. According to my conversation with the ranger, 3.6 million people visitor these parks annually.
But here is the kicker: the staff of the Oregon State Park Department consists of 6 FTEs for this volume of activity. Another 17 or so seasonal employees get added for the summer. A huge amount of work is done by volunteers who staff campgrounds and do maintenance work along the trails.
The system now receives no general operating support from the State, it subsists solely on fees and a diminishing allocation from the State Lottery. If you do the arithmetic of the number of visitors per FTE you get a window into the triage of management and services going on, and why staff feel frustrated and burned out.
I could not help but connect this to our larger national (and state) aversion right now to the public sector, public services, the public sector workforce, and the “bureaucracy.”
These Oregon parks are both a state and national treasure, yet they have the look and feel of deferred maintenance, inadequate capacity, and — from my sample of one person — the professional demoralization that can come from chronic underfunding and lack of investment.