Skip to comments.Bush takes heat for parks in crisis
Posted on 06/01/2003 7:19:58 AM PDT by Valin
From Gettysburg to Death Valley, nation's monuments are falling apart
WASHINGTON Dazzled by views of mountains, deserts and wildlife, visitors to America's national parks rarely notice that there also are missing signs, rotting buildings and fewer rangers to answer questions.
On Sept. 13, 2000, presidential candidate George W. Bush posed before the Cascade Mountains in Washington state and warned that national parks were "at the breaking point." He vowed to eliminate a $4.9 billion backlog in deferred maintenance. Nearly 1,000 days later, the repair budget for Mount Rainier National Park, the tallest and most visited part of the Cascades, was cut 40 percent. That means that two of the park's most urgent problems a heavily used footbridge that's rotting and a historic cabin that's falling apart will go unrepaired. The budget for repairs at Western parks overall was slashed 28 percent in May, in part to pay for a study, criticized by National Park Service Director Fran Mainella, to see if park workers should be replaced with low-bid private contractors.
With another summer vacation season under way, several former park-service executives have voiced fear that the entire national-park system is menaced by a hidden crisis. They cite multiple problems, including inadequate funding for maintenance and daily operations, the Bush administration's plan to shift more than 1,700 park jobs to private firms and a general weakening of protection for air, water and animals.
The Bush administration has increased spending on park system maintenance and construction above what it inherited by a total of $321 million over three years. But it still has provided only 15 cents for every dollar that it said was needed to repair long-overdue maintenance problems. Overall, the maintenance backlog in the national park system may now be as high as $6 billion, according to the General Accounting Office, Congress' auditing arm.
In addition, President Bush has done less to expand the national park system than any president in more than 100 years, a Knight Ridder analysis found. The president's father, former President George Bush, once added four parks in one six-day period; so far his son has added only three in 2.3 years. Last year, he created the Flight 93 National Monument in Pennsylvania and the 3,500-acre Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historic Park in Virginia. He also split off 410,000 acres from an existing park in Idaho and named it Craters of the Moon National Preserve.
"The average visitor, I think, goes to a park and has a wonderful time, comes out and thinks everything is fine," said Denis Galvin, who was acting director of the National Park Service during the first four months of this administration. "What you're really dealing with is an insufficient level of investment. Things are getting worse every day." Galvin, who was deputy parks director under Presidents Reagan and Clinton and associate director under the president's father, said that even though this administration had increased spending on maintenance, it nonetheless had neglected its duties to national parks. "They are treating the National Park Service as if they are custodians of parking lots and tourist destinations, not as if they are custodians of our most precious places," said Roger Kennedy, national parks chief under Clinton and a Smithsonian museum director under the first President Bush.
At Mount Rainier, the maintenance backlog stands at about $50 million, said Dan Blackwell, the park's maintenance chief. At Yellowstone National Park, it's nearly $700 million, said park spokeswoman Cheryl Matthews. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has $117 million in deferred road projects alone. At Death Valley, one ancient leaky roof was patched so often and so poorly that a waterlogged ceiling tile fell in 2001 and hit a woman as she was paying her entrance fee. The roof isn't scheduled to be replaced until 2006; until then, Death Valley plans to send workers up to the flat roof when it rains to squeegee the water off, said J.T. Reynolds, Death Valley National Park superintendent.
For all that, there has been some progress. When he spoke in the Cascades, Bush said: "Sewage flows untreated into the lakes and streams of Yellowstone National Park. Civil War relics have been soaked by a leaky roof at Gettysburg." Yellowstone installed a new sewage system for the Old Faithful area in 2001, and another treatment plant is on the way. Yellowstone has had no major sewage spills for more than a year. Gettysburg's leaky roof remains unrepaired, however, a symbol of how much more needs to be done, many park experts say. "Park facilities and resources are deteriorating, and they have been for decades. There are times when we look and say 'Man, this is all uphill,' " said Reynolds of Death Valley. "You don't have the funds to do the preventive maintenance that's necessary, so things continue to deteriorate." "There will always be things on the list that need to be done," Park Service Deputy Director Don Murphy said in an interview. "On balance, the president has done very well by the National Park Service in this regard, especially when it comes to cyclic maintenance. In the long term, the NPS is going to be far better off."
Murphy contended that the Bush administration will spend $5.2 billion on parks maintenance over five years, fulfilling the president's promise. But of that money, day-to-day maintenance is expected to consume more than $4 billion, leaving less than $1 billion to work down the backlog. Parks professionals are alarmed by another plan announced this spring. It would turn over 1,708 federal positions in the National Park Service to private contractors, mostly jobs involving maintenance or security. In an internal memo last month, park service Director Mainella said this switch would cost $3 million just to study and that that would come at the expense of other park-service priorities. The National Park Service's Murphy contends that its experience proves that a mixed work force of private and federal employees performs well if the balance is carefully designed.
Many experts charge that other Bush administration environmental initiatives are hurting the parks. When the administration canceled a ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone, their diesel engines continued to spew air pollution, said Kennedy, former National Park Service director. The administration's proposed rewrite of the Clean Air Act would weaken the terms that allow national parks to intervene if distant power plants pollute park air. Shenandoah's Wade said he used those legal terms to intervene and reduce pollution from 40 power plants.
As for park expansion, since 1900, four new park-service sites have been added each year, on average, and no president averaged less than 2.4 new sites per year until this one. Bush has averaged 1.3 additions a year. His father added 16 in four years. Presidents Reagan and Clinton each added 20 in eight years. "It's a matter of management priorities," said the park service's Murphy.
Voyageurs park cuts part-time employees
At Voyageurs National Park on the Minnesota-Ontario border, this year's anticipated budget for projects was cut $1.2 million, a situation that allows the water-based park to hire only 10 of the 60 part-time workers it otherwise would have employed this summer. There are an additional 50 full-time staff there. "Instead of being able to clean camp sites once a week, we'll be doing some twice a month,'' said park superintendent Barbara West, who added that interpretive staff, who normally work with park visitors, will be asked to help with the maintenance work.
Question, is this supposed to be a bad thing?
~sigh...somehow the article seems to ignore this fact.
National parks should be about getting back to nature, going camping and hiking. People don't go there for the man made buildings, foot bridges and sewage treatment plants, which seem to be there for the park workers more than the visitors.
This is so typical for the NPS. They will spend $200,000 to study a problem that needs only $20,000 to fix. By the time the study is done there is no money left to do the repair.
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