President Bush's proposed FY2008 $2.4 billion budget for the Park Service is being hailed by many as the shot in the arm that the agency desperately needs.
And the accompanying prospect of another $3 billion in public-private funding to help buff up the park system in advance of the Park Service's centennial in 2016 is pretty tasty frosting.
But is this really as good as it sounds? I mean, any increase in Park Service funding levels is welcome. But not everyone is sold on the administration's proposal, in large part because the $3 billion frosting is contingent, first, on Congress going along with the deal, and, second, on the private sector stepping up to the plate with gobs of money.
Congressman Nick Joe Rahall, a Democrat from West Virginia who chairs the House Resources Committee, questions the president's proposal, accusing it of being laden more with gimmicks than substance.
"We do not need any more fancy labels or bumper sticker slogans on new initiatives to responsibly manage our nation's precious resources," says Rahall. "Instead, we need to get back to the basics of good stewardship through the core programs of the Interior Department."
Principally drawing Rahall's ire is how the president would fund the drive towards the Park Service's centennial.
For starters, Bush would add $100 million in new funds each year for the agency over the next decade. OK, no tremendous problem there, (aside from the fact that he only has one more budget to prepare, not nine more).
But then he proposes that the federal government match private-sector donations, up to $100 million, each year for the next decade.
Presto: $3 billion "to help the parks prepare for their 100th birthday in 2016."
But, as Representative Rahall points out, only $100 million of that $3 billion total has been committed by the president.
"The rest of the funding is just an illusion conjured by this administration," he says.
Too, the congressman contends that the "new" funding the president is proposing in reality results from shifting funds from elsewhere within the agency's budget, such as from its construction account.
On top of that, the Democrat doesn't like the thought of relying on the private sector to maintain the park system.
"While many Americans value the role of private philanthropy in supporting our national park system, the administration's increasing reliance on the private sector capacity is troubling," adds Rahall. "Our national parks are national treasures -- their funding is a national responsibility."
Of course, in his comments Representative Rahall does not offer his own funding solution.
Now, over at the National Parks Conservation Association, folks think the president's proposal is great.
"This budget proposal is a victory for all Americans who cherish our heritage and homeland," says Tom Kiernan, the group's president. "The administration has responded to the serious needs of America's national parks and proposed a dramatic and unprecedented investment to help restore our parks before their centennial."
But has it?
NPCA itself has said the Park Service's annual operating budget trails actual funding needs by more than $800 million. On top of that, Park Service officials a year ago said their maintenance backlog, dollar-wise, loomed somewhere between $4.5 billion and $9 billion.
And let's not forget, the president has a track record of promising things he can't deliver. Remember back during the 2000 presidential campaign, when he promised to wipe out the Park Service's backlog in four years? Didn't do it, did he?
Now, as to the FY08 budget proposal, it does sound encouraging. For instance, there would be a $230 million increase in park operations funding over Bush's FY007 Park Service budget (the one that contained a $100 million cut for the agency); $100 million in discretionary funding for the parks, money that can be spent on things like maintaining border control in places like Coronado National Memorial and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and; enough money to hire 3,000 seasonal rangers (1,000 for interpretation and education positions, 1,000 for resource protection, and 1,000 for maintenance) and, I've been told, roughly 500 full-time rangers.
Additionally, the budget proposal would:
* Provide a $35 million increase in cyclic maintenance, for a total of $106.5 million;
* Provide $63.7 million for historic preservation needs;
* Commit $57.5 million to fully fund employee pay and benefits;
* Boost the agency's base funding by $140 million, money that would go towards interpretation and education, visitor center staffing, and park safety.
Those all sound pretty good.
But, darn it, that $3 billion in extra funding still sounds pretty soft.
Will Congress approve the matching program? Will businesses pony up $100 million a year? True, Mary has said she wants more private funding to support the park system. That, of course, is blasphemy to many park purists, who don't want an intrusion by private corporations into the park system.
Over at NPCA, Ron Tipton, the group's senior vice president of programs, agrees there might be some concerns over asking the private sector to commit so much money to the parks. But he believes much of that money would come through various friends groups that support many of the parks, as well as from private foundations, such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, not from the Toyotas, GEs, and Microsofts of the world.
Beyond that, he's not even sure it's possible to raise $100 million a year for ten years from the private sector.
"I don't know if it's exactly the right proposal," Tipton says of the matching proposal, "but I think it will stimulate a lot of discussion."
Indeed it will. And as more folks scrutinize the president's proposal, more praise and/or criticism will spew forth. So stay tuned.