Congress Can't Afford its Appetite for National Parks
An interesting comment about the state of the national park system was made earlier this month by U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami.
Informed during a House subcommittee hearing into the plight of national parks that Everglades National Park officials don't know where they'll find the millions of dollars needed to soundly restore the hurricane-ravaged Flamingo Lodge, she said, "I have a philosophy that parks are to be enjoyed by the public and not by the fussy librarian that does not want to take the book off the shelf."
Parks are indeed intended to be enjoyed by the public. But for the National Park Service to make that possible, Congress has to pay attention to the agency's financial woes.
Our congressional representatives love national parks. At least when it comes to landing a national park unit in their home district.
When it comes to allocating the necessary dollars to maintain those facilities, well, that's another issue. Evidence of that lies in that slippery multi-billion-dollar price tag so often tossed out when folks talk about the Park Service's maintenance backlog.
Don't misunderstand me. There are a plethora of funding issues that no doubt overwhelm Congress. Wars, hurricanes, homeland security, Medicaid and Medicare, transportation. The list goes on and on.
Of course, there also is a lot of wasteful spending in Congress, as I pointed out back in a September post in which I suggested Congress transform some of its $24 billion worth of pork-barrel spending into parks spending.
Congress could also help the National Park Service if it didn't come up with so many suggestions for new Park Service units.
At last count, there were 27 studies pending on proposed Park Service units. There's the proposed Bainbridge Island/Japanese-American Memorial for Washington state, the Franklin National Battlefield in Tennessee, the Waco Mammoth Site in Texas and the Great Falls Historic District in New Jersey.
Down in Texas the agency is looking into creating the Buffalo Bayou National Heritage Area, and the Golden Spike site in Utah also is being studied for heritage area status. And let's not forget the proposal to transform Niagara Falls, a New York state park, into a national heritage area.
And the list goes on.
The Park Service is studying the Captain John Smith Water Trail in Maryland and Virginia, the multi-state Vicksburg Campaign Trail, and the Washington & Rochambeau Revolutionary Route for inclusion into the National Trails System. Sections of three rivers -- the Eightmile River in Massachusetts, portions of the New River in Virginia and West Virginia, and the Tauton River in Massachusetts -- are being studied for inclusion to the National Wild and Scenic River System.
That's a sampling of studies the Park Service already is conducted into proposed NPS units. In Congress legislation is pending on a handful of other proposals, ranging from the Delaware National Coastal Special Resources Study Act and a pitch to make Castle Nugent Farms in the Virgin Islands a national park to a request to create the Soldier's Memorial Museum in St. Louis.
Trapped by all these studies and proposals is the National Park Service, which can't adequately maintain its current properties with the budget its been given.
Bruce Sheaffer, who has served as the Park Service's comptroller, or chief financial officer if you will, for better than three decades, says Congress can have a "significant" impact on the agency's budget when it adds another property to the Park Service list.
"If it comes with a requirement to buy land, for example, it immediately puts stress on our budget to go out and acquire the property. So that's one way it can do it," Sheaffer told me the other day. "If this property, or if the facility, comes to us say, from a state, and this park comes with facilities, then it comes with an 'instant backlog' increase, if there were such a thing. And that certainly has happened over the years."
Congress, Sheaffer told me, has always had a "disconnect" between wanting to add more units to the Park Service and adequately funding them.
"Now," he added, "the appropriators and Congress have been trying to discipline themselves more, and I think they've done a better job recently."
Perhaps Congress could do a lot better if it would simply hold off on proposing new Park Service properties until it demonstrates it can adequately fund the ones that already exist.