The weather here in Utah the past week has been outstanding. With high temperatures in the 50s and 60s across the sun-soaked landscape, it has been ideal for long bike rides and hikes into the mountains. Even if it is highly unseasonal, the sunny days have been a welcome break from winter.
Those rides and hikes have provided plenty of time to mull over the National Park Centennial Initiative, that economic development engine the Bush administration wants to rev up across the national park system with an eye on the Park Service's centennial in 2016.
Beyond my already stated concerns -- the desire to draw the private sector more closely to underwriting the park system and the question of whether the long list of existing needs throughout the system will be overlooked in favor of new "centennial" projects -- there are some other questions that overshadow this initiative, questions that should have received answers before the current whirlwind of "listening sessions" was launched across the country.
1. Why has the administration not identified exactly how it would fund the government's $100 million/year match for the proposed initiative?
Here's what Mary told House Speaker Pelosi when she wrote her to propose legislation to make the initiative campaign possible: "The president's budget includes appropriate proposed offsets within the budget of the Department of Interior that, if enacted, are sufficient" to fund this proposal.
However, the accompanying draft legislation points to no specific offsets, the Park Service's Washington communications staff has no idea what those offsets might be, nor does the National Parks Conservation Association, which has championed this campaign from the beginning.
I have heard speculation that offsets might involve selling off some lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management or drawing on the still-imaginary royalties from drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. To buttress the $100 million federal match on either or both of these long-shots would be, I think, overly speculative.
2. Why hasn't Dirk or Mary clearly laid out a platform for the Centennial Initiative, one that establishes some solid parameters for what constitutes a "signature" project or program?
Clearly the American Recreation Coalition, whose membership is weighted heavily toward motorized recreation groups, might envision projects that would significantly differ from those favored, say, by the Outdoor Industry Association, which last year conducted a survey that demonstrated that a strong majority of folks want a quiet, secluded national park experience, one without a heavy corporate presence.
Now, without any specific parameters at this date, and with ARC's constant lobbying of Dirk, is it possible that a signature project at Yellowstone could be a snowmobile-industry funded "Snowmobile Training Center" where would-be park visitors could learn how to safely drive a snowmobile? How 'bout a similar personal watercraft training grounds at some of the national lakeshores and seashores? I mean, in some eyes such a project could mesh with Mary's desire (as expressed in her letter to Speaker Pelosi) for projects that allow families to "enjoy quality time together and have fun outdoors."
These would appear to be simple, straightforward and reasonable questions that the general public should have been provided answers to before this three-week listening-session odyssey began.
After all, if the administration can't point to a funding source that Congress will sign off on -- and Representative Nick Joe Rahall, chair of the powerful House Resources Committee, already has dubbed the Centennial Initiative's funding arm "an illusion conjured by this administration" -- then a lot of time, resources, and staff will have been wasted on these listening sessions.
Could obfuscation be a key part of the drive behind the Centennial Initiative?
I understand that within the hallowed walls of the Interior Department political appointees have been making it clear that questions about the program shouldn't be answered too specifically for fear those answers might doom the proposed bill.
They have spread the word that questions about how the money raised through the initiative might be spent, about the limits on what exactly constitutes a "signature project," where private matching funds might be obtained, and yes, where offsets in Interior might be used to fund this program, should not be answered in too much detail.
The bottom line, I understand, is for the department to curry congressional favor by, in essence, making it seem as if anything is possible. Anything, that is, except clearcut answers.