Dissection of the proposed FY08 budget for the National Park Service continues, as it should until 1) we get a better picture of just how the proposed $3 billion National Park Centennial Challenge will operate, and, 2) we learn if Congress has a better plan.
Most recently, the Crater Lake Institute, which works to enhance the learning and recreational experience of Crater Lake National Park, has come out against the president's blueprint. The institute's board of directors is critical both of the president's suggestion that the private sector be called upon to invest upwards of $1 billion in the parks, and of the overall increase in the federal government's investment in the park system.
In our analysis, the limited overall increase in "new" money is only 2 percent above 2006 levels and only $14 million higher than 2002 appropriations. The 2007 cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security was 3.3 percent, writes the group.
And really, before folks get overly enthused about the Centennial Challenge, more needs to be clarified about just exactly how this program will work.
As I understand it, there currently is no well-defined platform for this challenge. Must private-sector donations be solely in cash, or will in-kind donations count towards the proposed federal government match?
What will the money be spent on? In a system that already has a multi-billion-dollar-backlog, one would hope much of this proposed $3 billion would go towards erasing that, not building new facilities that the financially strapped Park Service won't be able to staff or maintain. And really, the president's pitch six years ago to invest $5 billion in the park system over five years was a much, much better deal than he currently is offering.
Beyond that, what role will park superintendents play in fund-raising? While some parks have powerful foundations that exist to raise private donations -- the Yellowstone Park Foundation, the Yosemite Fund, and the Friends of Acadia, just to name three -- who will rally the fund-raising charge for the smaller parks and national monuments, not to mention the national recreation areas?
And, really, what of the president's budget? Is it as good as advertised? An analysis by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees points out that of the $230 million increase in the park operations budget, $211 million of that comes at the expense of other funding categories, such as historic preservation, construction and major maintenance, and land acquisition.
And both the retirees and the Crater Lake Institute worry that the $3 billion centennial initiative campaign "will skew what projects get done. Requiring fund-raising for basic infrastructure maintenance will put greater emphasis on projects appealing to private investment (new visitor centers, rehabilitation of premier historic sites), but is likely to work against basic park needs such as utility systems or roads."
Now, over at the National Parks Conservation Association, budget specialist Blake Selzer calculates that the president's proposed budget contains a $105 million, or 4 percent, increase in discretionary spending from FY06 levels.
And while the NPCA as recently as two years ago was calling for a $600 million annual increase in Park Service funding, the group is comfortable with the president's proposed increase. (Interestingly, in the last week the page on NPCA's website that called for such a hefty funding increase has been updated and that wording seems to have vanished.)
"Yes, NPCA has consistently raised awareness of the annual operating shortfall in the parks (currently estimated in excess of $800 million)," Selzer tells me. "We however did not ever expect to eliminate it in a single year. An increase of $258 million for park operations does take a strong step in the right direction toward addressing this chronic operational shortfall facing our parks."
Just the same, whichever view you tend to support I won't be surprised if more thorns in this budget package aren't identified as more analysis is conducted.
One thing I'm hearing from park officials around the country, who only now are beginning to dig through the proposal, is that while the president is calling for 3,000 more seasonal rangers to be provided the parks, there might not be enough money to actually afford those positions. The problem here is that the length of "season" that went into the calculation for the 3,000 positions does not always equate with the actual "season" out in the field.
For instance, whereas for some parks the high season might run from Memorial Day to Labor Day, other parks, such as those in the South and Southwest, have longer seasons and so to fully benefit from those added seasonal jobs they might have to get creative with their budgeting. They might have to pirate funds from elsewhere in their budgets or get by with fewer than the entire number of seasonals they now are projected to receive to actually employ some of the additional seasonals for the full run of their parks' actual high seasons.
Yes, these are interesting times in the Park Service, and things likely will only get more and more interesting.