The National Parks Conservation Association has reiterated its case for why the National Park Service needs more congressional funding. Now the question is whether anyone in Washington cares?
During a two-hour session in Boston on Wednesday, the park watchdog group went over familiar testimony, pointing out that the Park Service operates with a $600 million annual shortfall and that the backlog of maintenance needs ranges somewhere between $4.5 billion and $9.7 billion.
I've got two immediate questions:
Why does Representative Mark Souder, a Republican from Indiana who is staging these hearings, need two years' worth of hearings to make a strong case for more funding for the Park Service? These funding numbers didn't arise overnight. They've been bantered about for years.
The second question is why the Congressional Research Service can't come up with a better figure for the maintenance backlog? The high-low difference in its current estimate is more than $4.5 billion.
No wonder Washington can't balance the federal budget. It apparently struggles mightily with accounting.
During Wednesday's hearing Roger Kennedy, the NPCA's National Council Chair, told the Government Reform, Criminal Justice Subcomittee that, "Our national parks are suffering from decades of inadequate investment by successive congresses and presidential administrations. The ability of the National Park Service to serve as guardian of the nation's heritage hangs precariously in the balance."
Kennedy has a point. The Park Service's money woes weren't built entirely by President Bush. Of course, he made the mistake of promising on his first campaign trail that he would wipe out the maintenance backlog, and he's failed miserably at that.
But a bigger part of the problem has been Congress. The recent highway bill that the president signed into law failed the parks horribly. While the president and the U.S. Senate wanted to provide $1.65 billion for park roadwork, the final version that was signed into law sliced $600 million from that total. As Kennedy told Souder's subcommittee: "The paltry funding level in this bill virtually guarantees minimal progress in reducing the road maintenance backlog for years to come, and sadly must be regarded as a missed opportunity for Congress to support fundamental park needs."
Frankly, the efforts of Souder and Representative Brian Baird, D-Washington, the two authors of the National Park Service Centennial Act, are pitiful. Since they introduced the legislation, which is designed to wipe out the Park Service's maintenance backlog by 2016, early in March -- after it failed to gain traction in the previous congressional session -- the two have enticed only 52 cosponsors. Fifty-two out of 435 members of the House of Representatives.
In the Senate, where Senator John McCain of Arizona introduced companion legislation in late April, just four -- that's right, folks, 4 -- cosponsors have come forward from the chamber's 100 members.
Sadly, no member of Wyoming's delegation, whose state claims Yellowstone, the park that started the whole national park movement way back in 1872, has seen fit to cosponsor either bill. And Utah, which has five national parks within its borders, also fails to show any support for the legislation. You can find the sponsor lists by visiting Rep. Souder's website. See if your congressional representatives have signed on. And if not, ask them why.
I saw a statistic the other day that claimed the Park Service's website -- www.nps.gov -- attracted the most hits of any government website. It's a shame that support isn't reflected in Congress.