The other day I posted a piece about the proposed National Park Centennial Act and how one of its co-authors, Rep. Brian Baird of Washington State, envisioned it working to help the National Park Service eliminate its multi-billion-dollar maintenance backlog. The Democrat provided some insights into how the Centennial Act could raise the money needed to wipe out that backlog.
Of course, he also took some shots at the Bush administration's fiscal "unfitness," if you will, saying many agencies in addition to the Park Service will continue to suffer until some sanity is returned to the government's budgeting decisions.
Today, I'll share with you some thoughts that Congressman Mark Souder, who spent much of last summer and the fall visiting national parks to get a feel for their financial condition, has about the Park Service and its funding woes.
Among the comments that stand out, at least to me, is his realization that the Centennial Act might not get the job done in time for the Park Service's 100th birthday.
Another comment that stands out is the congressman's contention that the NPS has "seen growth in its budget." Hopefully that's a signal that Congress will not go along with President Bush's $100 million cut in the agency's budget. Anyway, let's get on with my exchange with the Republican from Indiana.
1. What is your overall impression of the national park system's financial state and infrastructure condition in the wake of the hearing's you've had so far?
Congressman Souder: "While the parks are not in pristine condition, they are not, as a whole, in imminent danger of being ruined. They are currently in a slow decline. But these hearings have taught us that we are reaching a kind of tipping point. Our efforts are focused on making sure that the true state of the parks is known, and on recommending steps to ensure our parks are healthy and maintained for future generations.
"Financially, the NPS has seen growth in its budget where other agencies have seen level funding or cuts. In this current budgetary climate, with pressures coming from homeland security, defense, Social Security, Medicare and other important programs, our parks are in better shape than many other federal agencies. Nevertheless, the increases in the NPS's budget fall far short of NPS's increasing costs, so there is a steady decline in the quality of our national parks. We will continue to push for additional funding wherever and whenver possible."
2. 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 Souder: "Corporate involvement in the Park Service is a particularly hot and controversial topic. I think the best solution is balance. Corporate America and generous private philanthropists provide much-needed and much-appreciated support for our parks. It is not unnatural or inappropriate for the Park Service to encourage this generosity through recognition. There simply are not enough federal dollars to meet all of our park's needs.
"In Acadia National Park, L.L. Bean has donated funds for a bus service. This generous donation allows more people into Acadia NP without creating a horrendous traffic problem. The L.L. Bean logo appears on the side of the bus. But without the logo, L.L. Bean might alter their donation, leaving Acadia without a bus service, and a degradation of the environment.
"Ford Motor Co., through the National Parks Foundation, also supports transportation systems in the NPS. Kodak provides photography equipment and supports photography programs in the national parks. Consumer products giant Unilever has provided $100 million in recycled plastic lumber to 125 national parks. Camera-maker Canon has been a sponsor of a program that allows graduate students to study in national parks and apply their findings in practical ways.
"That said, people come to national parks to see history and natural beauty, not billboards and ostentatious signage. I believe that with a little effort, thinking, and consideration the Park Service can find a way to accommodate both an acknowledgement of beautiful scenery and American generosity. But we must be very careful that our national parks do not follow what has happened to sporting events, players and stadiums."
4. There's a wide range in the Park Service's estimated maintenance backlog. NPCA puts it at somewhere between $4.5 billion and $5 billion. With the Park Service's centennial just 10 years off, how much additional annual funding do you envision the Park Service needing to eliminate that backlog -- and stay atop all its ongoing needs -- by 2016?
Congressman Souder: "Although figures differ, there is agreement that it is a large amount. I don't know how much funding the Park Service will need. Additional projects are constantly added to the maintenance list; other projects are completed or removed. This makes for a very fluid 'maintenance backlog' and pinpointing an exact figure is difficult. The parks have suffered from some neglect. This in turn has caused more projects to go from routine to critical. We hope to pare down the so-called 'critical list,' and make the routine cyclical maintenance much more manageable. Internal management programs such as 'core ops' analysis will help. For example, legislation such as CARA may pass in principle, but real appropriated dollars are hard to come by. Our goal is to approximate $4-5 billion as closely as possible."
5. 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. Can your efforts succeed where his failed?
Congressman Souder: "There is growing support in Congress for the Park Service. The NPS is one of the most highly regarded government agencies among the general public. I believe the same is true among members of Congress. Part of the reason Congressman Brian Baird and I founded the National Parks Caucus is to harness existing support and to increase support among members of Congress.
"The backlog is elusive, and to some degree, always remains. It is a combination of cyclical maintenance and everyone's wish list. Right now, it includes far too much delayed maintenance and important projects. But the parks funding challenge also needs to include how to fund adequate numbers of personnel, from park rangers to scientists.
"We need to have the resources to add critical pieces to our park system. We need to use the Internet and modern communications to share with the astounding cultural and scientific resources of the NPS. It is not just about backlog. For 2016, we need a vision of what our national parks are to be, not just fixing what's broken."
6. If everything needs to be in place by 2016 (the centenary), then what is the latest date for enactment?
Congressman Souder: "Ideally, we would have the Centennial Act in place, and the tax check-off up and running long before 2016. Our objective is to build support for the parks and for better parks funding. The centennial of the NPS is the ideal time to highlight the plight of the parks and to draw attention to their needs. If this process takes longer, then so be it. Realistically, it would be nice to pass the Centennial Act in the next Congress, but it may take bipartisan support in the 2008 presidential election to make this happen.
"It took years to prepare for Mission 66, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the NPS. To be ready for the 2016 centennial, 2010 implementation would be cutting it close. Park supports are committed to the parks and will remain committed to the issue as long as it takes (even past 2016, if necessary.)"
7. How would the funding work? Some would come from the check-off box on tax forms, but where would the rest come from?
Congressman Souder: "As the bill is written, over a 10 year period, a certain amount of funding would be given to the NPS. Money would first be raised from the tax check-off. The gap between the funding mandated by the bill and funds raised by the tax check-off would be covered from general revenue.
"This structure is a starting point. What might happen is that the government would match whatever amount is raised by the check-off. If the government funds the gap (as it would in the proposed Centennial Act), it would take longer to pass than a check-off with a match."