Nine billion dollars. Or maybe the total is closer to $10 billion, or perhaps $4.5 billion. Whatever, that's an awful lot of money that the National Park Service needs to wipe out its maintenance backlog and bring the national park system up to snuff.
It's a big number, one so big it's hard to get your arms around. But Congressmen Brian Baird of Washington State and Mark Souder of Indiana have a plan to erase most, if not all, of the backlog by 2016, the year the NPS celebrates its 100th birthday.
But can they do it?
Reps. Baird and Souder are the authors of the National Park Centennial Act, which is designed to eliminate the deficit through direct appropriations from the Treasury along with donations from you and me. But with the Park Service's centennial just 10 years away, and that big number getting bigger every year, I'm wondering whether they can do it. After all, the list of cosponsors is just 63 in the House and four in the Senate.
With that said, I asked both congressmen to respond to some questions about the Park Service, ranging from its funding woes to Director's Order 21. While Representative Souder has yet to respond, here's how my exchange with Representative Baird went:
Q. NPS Director Fran Mainella has proposed rewriting the rules governing gift-giving to the Park Service. Concerns have been expressed that some details of Director's Order 21 would lead to a commercialization of the park system. Where do you stand on the issue of giving more recognition to corporate and private donors?
Congressman Baird: "I believe this could lead to further commercialization, which is a slippery slope. Too much reliance of private gifts could ultimately lead to further federal funding cuts."
Q. There's a wide range in the Park Service's estimated maintenance backlog. The National Parks Conservation Association puts it at somewhere between $4.5 billion and $9 billion. With the Park Service's centennial just 10 years off, how much additional funding do you envision the Park Service needing to eliminate that backlog -- and stay atop all its ongoing needs -- by 2016?
Congressman Baird: "The maintenance backlog varies, by the administration's own estimates, somewhere between $4.5 and $9.7 billion. The National Parks Centennial Act that Congressman Souder and I introduced would address the $600 million annual shortfall the National Park Service currently faces by annually providing a minimum of $150 million from the general treasury (on top of the agency's annual appropriation) and the creation of a new, voluntary donation check-off box on federal tax returns.
"Similar to the presidential elections voluntary donation check-off box currently printed on federal tax forms, this donation check-off would give taxpayers the opportunity to contribute any amount they see fit to the National Park System. If contributions from the tax return check-off boxes do not meet the required amount (for instance $150 million in 2006), our legislation would require the remaining funding to be allocated from the general treasury."
Q. Do you sense strong congressional support for addressing the agency's needs? As you recall, President Bush, during his first campaign, promised to wipe out the Park Service's backlog and was unsuccessful. More recently, his proposed FY2007 budget proposal cut $100 million from the agency's budget. Can your efforts succeed where his failed?
Congressman Baird: "The 30-member congressional National Parks Caucus and dozens of other members of Congress have demonstrated their commitment to our national parks. The public is also supportive; a recent Harris Poll found that 85 percent of Americans strongly support or have a great deal of support the National Park Service.
"Unfortunately, the president's fiscally irresponsible budget and tax priorities make funding our nation's parks, as well as a host of other important programs, nearly impossible. In the past four years, our country has amassed the four largest deficits in American history. This fiscal year alone we will incur a staggering record deficit of $423 billion -- the highest ever.
"We can't have our cake and eat it too. Until we restore fiscal responsibility to our government and pay down our debt, our parks will continue to face serious budget shortfalls. In the end, our children and grandchildren are being left to foot the bill of our fiscal and environmental negligence. They deserve better."
They do deserve better. But Congressman Baird and Souder face long odds, particularly with the Iraq war continuing to gobble up appropriations at an astounding rate. Even if the Centennial Act gained passage this year, barring an incredible outpouring from the general public it would fall far short of addressing the current backlog.
With that in mind, the congressmen want the Interior Department to prioritize the Park Service's funding needs -- something that's being done -- so a carefully orchestrated plan of attack can be designed. It might not be a perfect solution for the Park Service's needs, but it's a start...if Congress and the president get behind it, which, perhaps, is a mighty tall task.