Budget Shortfalls Affect National Parks' Maintenance, Cleaning

May 19, 2016
Originally published on May 20, 2016 4:46 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Up next, we want to introduce you to a couple of the guys who are responsible for cleaning up the bathrooms at Great Smoky Mountains park. Not pretty, but somebody's got to do it. NPR's Nathan Rott takes it from here.

ADAM RYMER: Maintenance.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Yes, today...

RYMER: Maintenance coming in.

ROTT: ...We clean bathrooms. But don't worry...

RYMER: It's not too bad today, is it?

JASON SAWYER: No, it's not too bad.

ROTT: And these fellows we're with would know. This time of year, Jason Sawyer (ph) Adam Rymer and one other employee are responsible for all of the toilets on the North Carolina side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That means five bathrooms here at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and then about, oh, 45 others on this side of the park.

RYMER: Fifty bathrooms, then multiply that by five. That's probably how many toilets we've cleaned.

ROTT: So Rymer's got a pretty good idea when a bathroom is in good shape and when one is not.

RYMER: Definitely run into some creative messes in our restroom facilities. You're kind of amazed that it even happened.

ROTT: It's like the - I'm not even mad...

RYMER: I'm not even mad. I'm impressed.

ROTT: ...I'm impressed.

RYMER: Yeah. (Laughter) It's definitely one of those.

ROTT: And it's not just the bathrooms. Rymer and the maintenance people here mow the lawns at the visitor centers. They wash the windows. They even grease the bear-proof garbage cans.

RYMER: If you've got to lube a trash can, it might as well be in paradise, right?

ROTT: But good humor will only get them so far. A record 10.7 million people visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park last year, a record that's likely to be broken again this year. That's a lot of toilets that need to be cleaned and a lot of garbage bins that need to be emptied.

RYMER: At some point, it's - we're doing the maximum amount. You're going to start getting complaints. This bathroom's not clean. There's litter everywhere.

ROTT: How close do you think you guys are to that point?

RYMER: I think we're at it. I think we're at that point.

ROTT: Rymer's boss, Brian Bergsma, the head of facilities here, agrees.

BRIAN BERGSMA: This park has close to a quarter billion dollars alone of differed maintenance.

ROTT: That means roads, buildings, bathrooms, water systems that need fixed. But there's no money for the fixing, much less the people to do it.

BERGSMA: We're losing staff. You know, we're down 15 percent from five years ago.

ROTT: And that has complicated consequences at a place like Great Smokys. Rymer gives us as an example.

RYMER: Last year, we had trouble, like, the people that empty our dumpsters can't get the dumpsters 'cause there's people, like, double and triple-parked in front of them.

ROTT: And they couldn't get those people to move because they didn't have enough rangers to call for help.

RYMER: Since the maintenance crews can't empty the trash cans, people start throwing trash next to the trash cans. So then we've got bears coming in...

ROTT: Which brings a wildlife crew...

RYMER: ...And it's just, like, this huge compounding issue over time.

ROTT: And it's an issue that Rymer and his other employees take personally because let's face it. You don't clean bathrooms and trim hedges at a national park to get rich.

RYMER: The guys that are helping us have a serious personal connection with this place 'cause many of them were born and raised here. And they want to make the park look great.

ROTT: That's the case with Rymer. He's got a marketing degree. He worked a desk job. But at the end of the day, he wanted to be here. And he says it's the same with the rest of the maintenance crew. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.