TCS Daily

Playing Park Politics

By Duane D. Freese - July 9, 2004 12:00 AM

To hear the critics of the Bush administration, the nation's crown jewels - its parks - have been turned into a polluted paste closed to visitors due to presidential neglect.

"Cash crunch hits national parks," screamed a headline in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on July 1. "Neglecting national parks," intoned one on an editorial in the Boston Globe three days earlier.

The articles followed on a press release by the John Kerry campaign that "America's parks are scaling back services, hours and staffing due to the broken promises of the Bush administration." It even enlisted former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to declare that "President Bush has broken his promise" regarding a pledge in September of 2000 to spend $4.9 billion on the parks' deferred maintenance backlog.

Well, on Thursday the current Interior Secretary Gale Norton and National Parks Superintendent Fran Mainella, the first woman ever appointed park superintendent, took exception to those readings of the Bush caretaking, with Mainella forcefully declaring, "The welcome mat is out."

What's put it out? Norton pointed out that the administration is on track to spending the $4.9 billion would on the backlog. "And we are investing more money and more wisely," she said, adding that the number really doesn't mean as much as setting in place a process for assessing when and where to spend the money.

"When we got into office, we asked 'where's the list' of maintenance projects needing to be done," Norton noted. "There was none."

That's why the administration decided to get an inventory of all the buildings, bridges and other structures in the parks as well as an assessment of the roads and, "being the largest real estate manager in the country," she went on, to grade their condition as real estate managers do.

This is exactly what the General Accounting Office of Congress has suggested for years. Indeed, the $4.9 billion maintenance number amounted to a guesstimate from the GAO, which came up with the number in the 1990s. As Barry Hill, director of the GAO's natural resources and environment team, testified in 2003, "Up to now, the maintenance backlog is just a best guess -- it's a moving target."

As Norton told reporters, "It's like your house. You are never done."

Maybe that's why Babbitt, despite his criticism of the Bush administration, was unable to come up with a number of how much Interior spent on his watch to deal with eliminating the maintenance backlog. And it also is why organizations, such as the National Parks and Conservation Association, can say just about anything they want about park needs, and then grade the Bush administration for not meeting them.

Indeed, no sooner was the press briefing over than the NCPA was bashing Norton and the Bush administration for not doing enough to save the parks. It may be spending "more money per visitor, per acre" or by any other than ever before, it simply isn't enough.

The Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees even issued a release that tried to make all the dollars and cents put forward by Norton and Mainella look like fictions, basically by dealing in anecdotal evidence of problems at some parks.

There's a place for this advocacy on behalf of the parks. But there is also a sniff of bias about it, especially since those speaking out have been negative about just about everything the Bush administration has done or tried to do.

And what has that been? It amounts to an impressive amount of money and manpower. Money for park operations will reach $1.8 billion in 2005, up 20 percent since Bush took office. In addition to that, the administration will spend $330 million on park construction projects and another $115 million for national recreation and historic preservation programs, all a fifth above what was spent under Clinton. And this despite the administration having to deal with the aftermath of 9/11, wage a war on terror and stimulate an economy that was entering a recession when it took office.

The NCPA and CCNPSR have not forgotten about those; neither could have Kerry or Babbitt. But they have ulterior reasons for going after the Bush administration about the parks, particularly now, in an election year.

The NCPA, in particular, has an extreme environmental agenda, often with poor results.

It applauded Clinton's ban of snowmobiles to begin last year in Yellowstone Park, arguing the snowmobiles create air and noise pollution in the parks and endanger the health of park workers and wildlife.

Faced with a suit by local businesses to allow the snowmobiles, the Bush administration negotiated a settlement that would limit their number, confine them to roads used in the summer by cars and with guides, and require quieter four-cycle engines with 90 percent less pollution.

Those opposed to the snowmobiles, though, sued in a district court in DC and won a ruling eliminating the Bush lifting of the Clinton ban. But then a district court out West ruled in favor of the snowmobilers, wiping out the Clinton rules. So, things are worse than what the administration won. The NCPA, though, gave Bush an F for worsening visitors' experience in the parks, based on its vision of keeping most of them out of the park during the winter.

The NCPA also flunked the administration for protecting park resources in great part because its Clear Skies initiative for cleaning up the air didn't go far enough. The fact that the Tennessee Valley Authority expects it will have to spend $4 billion to meet its strictures that will cut pollution by more than half doesn't impress them. But it will impress the businesses and residential ratepayers in the region who will have to pick up the tab.

At any rate, the picture of what's going on with the parks is pretty clear. They are getting fixed up. But in an election year, nothing the Bush administration does for the parks will satisfy his critics because they either want to defeat him politically or ideologically. There's no room for honest compromise or giving the administration its due. But do go and enjoy the parks. They are America's treasures.


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