Well, Dirk Kempthorne has been breaking in his new job as Interior secretary for what, almost two weeks now, and I'm not thrilled with what I'm hearing about his take on the health of the National Park Service.
Just the other day Secretary Kempthorne had a conference call with the fine folks at the American Recreation Coalition, you know, the people who advocate for more motorized recreation and access to the national parks and other public lands. At one point during the conversation the secretary said he didn't think the Park Service's maintenance backlog was too bad, that the agency was making good progress in that arena.
Now, perhaps that was simply the impression gleaned by ARC President Derrick Crandall, who provided ARC members with a rundown of the telephone call. But if Crandall got it right, what can Secretary Kempthorne be thinking?
At a time when park budgets are being pared to the bone, when the Government Accountability Office has documented parks' inability to function properly with scant funding, how can the secretary possibly think the NPS is doing a good job battling its budget woes?
The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees is trying to point out the NPS's budget plight to Secretary Kempthorne. In a somewhat lengthy letter to the Interior secretary, the coalition's executive council touched on variety of issues, including NPS funding levels. Here's how the coalition painted the budget picture:
"Despite increases in appropriations during several of the recent years, actual dollars allocated to parks not obligated to fixed costs and unfunded mandates are diminishing," the letter stated. "This results in drastic reductions in ranger-led educational and information programs - once a hallmark of the NPS. Resource protection and visitor safety patrols are fewer, placing visitors and resources at risk.
"Parks are forced to scale back their research and resources management programs, placing park managers in the position of having to make decisions based on inadequate information. Many visitors complain they never see a ranger when they visit parks. Deferred routine and preventive maintenance is increasing the maintenance backlog, which the President promised to eliminate. The President's proposed $100 million reduction for Fiscal Year 2007 will significantly compound every problem you face in the parks.
"Because parks are good politics, most of the reduction is likely to be restored by the Congress during this election year. The nation counts on you to be an advocate for the effective management of our park system, and you cannot do so while supporting such reductions."
In the months ahead it definitely will be interesting to see how Secretary Kempthorne's view on the health of the Park Service evolves. That said, I'll be extremely surprised if the secretary lobbies President Bush or Congress for more funding. Rather, watch if he doesn't jump on the same privatization wagon that his predecessor, Gale Norton, was riding.