Times are definitely tough, budget-wise, for the federal government.
The national deficit is mounting, the Social Security system continues on a road that some say will lead to default, millions of families lack health insurance, and President Bush is continuing to call for tax cuts that analysts say would benefit the wealthiest of Americans.
So it shouldn't come as a surprise that the president has sent a pretty austere budget to Congress. In that budget proposal, most domestic programs -- outside of the Defense Department and a small handful of select programs -- saw their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year that kicks off October 1 sliced by 0.5 percent.
Among those no-so-lucky programs is the National Park Service, for which the president has proposed a $100 million cut, according to NPS documents.
Of course, the president's proposal is just that, a proposal. Congress will have the final say on spending decisions.
The National Parks Conservation Association immediately jumped on the president's proposed budget, sending out a release that termed the impact on the National Park Service "crippling."
"Despite continued budget pressures in an unstable world, this budget does not reflect the priority that Americans place on our National Park System," the advocacy group said. "It does not begin to meet the needs of our national parks. In fact, this $100 million budget cut likely means that Americans will pay higher entrance fees this summer for fewer services in our parks."
Fewer services and deteriorating parks, it would seem.
The Park Service countered with a press release of its own, saying that the budget request for the agency's operations "reflects a net increase of $23.4 million over the FY2006 enacted level."
"This budget request builds on the president's strong commitment to preserving America's national parks and special places," NPS Director Fran Mainella said. "The 2007 budget proposal will enable us to manage and maintain our national parks and magnificent historic treasures and natural wonders they possess. This request combines fiscal prudence with innovative management approaches and business practices to increase funding for some critical programs, such as visitor services and safety, as well as strengthen our natural and cultural resource stewardship programs."
So. Who's telling the truth? Is this budget proposal an increase for the Park Service, or a cut?
The answer, as usual, depends on what you're examining. The budget request does indeed reflect a $23.4 million increase in the Park Service's operations budget, which would go from nearly $1.72 billion to slightly more than $1.74 billion if President Bush's proposal is adopted by Congress. (Oh, and by the way, this line item calls for a cut of 139 full-time Park Service employees...)
However, the operations budget is just one component of the agency's overall appropriation, and Park Service officials acknowledge that the proposed increase would basically keep their operations budget flat.
Other components range from the United States Park Police and the National Recreation and Preservation budget to Construction and Major Maintenance and Land Acquisition. Factor in all those components and there is indeed a $100 million drop in proposed 2007 funding from the current appropriation, according to the Park Service's own documentation.
"Our overall message is that the (funding) trend is woefully inadequate," Steven Bosak, NPCA's park funding program director, told me, adding that the $23.4 million in increased operational funding will make it difficult for the agency to keep up with steep rises in energy and staffing costs.
"They're playing with numbers. The overall decrease to the Park Service's budget is $100 million," he says.
Over at the Park Service, Communications Director David Barna acknowledged that the budget does call for an $84.6 million reduction in the agency's Construction and Major Maintenance funds, a cut that accounts for most of the $100 million reduction.
However, he pointed out that the agency is counting on $210 million from the Highway Trust Fund that will help pay for needed roadwork in the parks, work that constitutes a large slice of the park system's maintenance backlog.
That said, he acknowledged that dollars are hard to come by in Washington these days.
"It's not a good time in D.C. if you're not Homeland Security," said Barna. "Times are tough."
* The agency's "bureau highlights" notes that the FY07 budget request calls for $229.3 million for "construction and major maintenance," which is an $84.6 million drop from the current appropriation.
* For the "National Recreation and Preservation" program, which works with local efforts to preserve natural and cultural resources, the funding request of $33.3 million represents a $20.9 million decrease from the current appropriation, and a $28 million cut from FY05 levels.
* For "Land Acquisition and State Assistance," a program that goes to acquiring additional land for the park system, the president is requesting $24.3 million, which is a $22.6 million cut from present funding. For FY05 the actual budget for land acquisition was $144.3 million, so you can see the president's support has drastically eroded in this area.
I am a bit curious about Director Mainella's claim that the budget as proposed will strengthen the agency's "natural and cultural resource stewardship programs," for her own agency says the proposal cuts nearly $300,000 from the "Vanishing Treasures" initiative, a program intended to preserve ancient rock art, Native American ruins, and homesteader cabins located within Southwest parks from continued decay and collapse.
And though the agency touts the fact that there's a $10 million increase "for cyclic maintenance of park facilities," it's offset by a $10 million decrease "for the repair and rehabilitation program." Does that make sense?
Despite the spin Director Mainella puts on this budget, things are not as rosy as she would like Americans to believe. Just last month I talked with Bruce Sheaffer, the Park Service's comptroller, and he told me that the agency's maintenance backlog is somewhere between $4.5 billion and $9 billion.
With that kind of a hole to dig itself out of, the NPS is not likely to make much headway into that deficit, even on its low side, with budgets such as the one President Bush is proposing. Especially when you realize that the agency already has an annual $600 million shortfall in its maintenance funding.
"You need increases in operational dollars so the backlog doesn't grow," says Bosak. "This just doesn't do it. You're perpetuating the backlog."