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Centennial Initiative Bucks and Buzz
More than 250 projects with some $300 million in related pledges and lots of buzz.
That's what the National Park Centennial Initiative has spawned in the months since Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced the initiative that's to help craft the commemoration of the National Park Service's centennial in 2016.
"From the (park) superintendents we have now received over 2,000 suggested plans. Two-thousand," Mr. Kempthorne told reporters today. "Of those, we have identified that 251 have private sector financial support. And when you add up all that financial support, it's over $300 million.
"For people that wondered if we would be able to find in the private sector sufficient funds to match up to $100 million, our problem is going to be the prioritization," he continued. "People are ready to make significant, sustained contributions to the national parks. It's very exciuting. There's a synergy that's absolutely taking place, a national movement that's under way."
For awhile this afternoon it seemed as if the telephone conference call arranged so reporters could quiz Mr. Kempthorne and Park Service Director Mary Bomar on the centennial report sent to President Bush was a pep rally for the two as representatives from several park friends groups applauded their efforts to bolster the park system.
"My colleagues and I are very excited about this process," said Curt Buchholtz, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Nature Association as well as president of the Friends Alliance, a coalition of 48 organizations that do philanthropy in the park system. "We've worked with Secretary Kempthorne and Director Bomar since last November in helping formulate and giving advice about this and we couldn't ask for a better proposal.
"We believe that the themes are incredibly powerful that he set out here, members are calling this proposal 'visionary,' there are elements of stewardship and philanthropy and education, the things that we have supported philanthropically through the years. We believe our donors are going to be very supportive of this," said Mr. Buchholtz.
"One of our members has called this proposal and its presentation to Congress a 'near miracle' in terms of its advancement," he continued. "Some people are seeing it as historically visionary as the Civilian Conservation Corps was in the 1930s, or as Mission 66 was in the 1950s and 60s. Another of our members called it refreshing. One phrase that was used was that it was 'springtime in the parks.'"
Members of a friends group in St. Louis were said to be "giddy with excitement" over the proposal, while Deborah Tuck, president of the Grand Canyon National Park Foundation, said "our friends organization is really very excited about this, and donors are very excited."
"There are two statements that are interesting that are historical," Ms. Tuck continued. "The chair of my board said, 'This gives us a chance to complete Teddy Roosevelt's legacy for the Grand Canyon.' And the other one, Mr. Secretary, someone said, 'Gosh, he's the best secretary of the Interior we've had since Stewart Udall.'"
At the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, Executive Director Leslie Mattson-Emerson predicted that the proposal would create "energy and momentum for national park philanthropy. I think most importantly, the effort will inspire donors to reach further and increase their giving to our national parks, and make it a priority for their philanthropy."
Beyond the praise, though, much work remains. Congress has yet to fully endorse the president's centennial matching component, through which the federal government would match upwards of $100 million annually in private donations to the park system for the next decade. Earlier this month a House subcommittee met the president halfway by backing $50 million of that total.
Still, both Mr. Kempthorne and Ms. Bomar are moving forward as though congressional approval of the funding package is a mere formality.
"The initial down payment is half of what we are trying to achieve," the Interior secretary pointed out, adding that while that's promising, he's "encouraging them to go to the full $100 million."
Beyond that, the two said much can move forward toward strengthening the NPS and the national park system as long as Congress signs off on, or improves, President Bush's FY2008 budget request for the Park Service.
"It allows us, for example, to bring on 3,000 additional seasonal rangers, interpretive guides. But that's in addition to 1,500 permanent rangers that will be brought on," said Mr. Kempthorne. "So all of that can be accomplished with the budget that's being proposed out there."
Director Bomar added that under the FY08 budget proposal, 131 parks "will receive base increases, which is huge for us in the national park system," and there's $20 million in "flexible funding" that can be used on a variety of projects, such as removal of invasive species.
As for the $300 million that has been tentatively pledged toward projects across the park system, Park Service officials still have to sort through the projects and decide which ones to move forward with, said Steve Whitesell, the superintendent of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park who is currently acting as the Park Service's centennial coordinator.
"We are in the process of looking at criteria ... we will use to evaluate the projects. As the secretary said, when we did the first call out to park areas and friends groups and after listening to the public we had some 2,000 projects, of which you can just imagine the spectrum that that covered," he said.
"We then said, 'OK, now which ones already have partners that, if you will, are ready to go,' because we want to make sure certainly in Fiscal Year 08 that we show great success with this program. They came back and said, for 08, and actually for fiscal year 09, in total over 250 projects that have partners ready, willing, and able to step up to the plate to work with us in a cost-sharing arrangement with these projects," Mr. Whitesell continued.
"So, at this point, if you will, we are over-subscribed for the dollars that are potentially available and we have the advantage of being able to go through and really look at this with criteria in hand and decide which are the best of the best."
Once those are selected, the Park Service will work to see they don't get bogged down in bureaucracy, said Mr. Kempthorne.
"I've said, in listening to many of our friends organizations, too often the 'p' in NPS was standing for 'process' instead of park," he said. "We're really working so that as you see language it's going to foster and achieve transparency, the best accounting practices, it's going to be pragmatic. That's why I have the inspector general who's involved from the outset."
The interior secretary also said the sorting system that will be used to fund projects will not deny funding to smaller, less iconic park units.
"I think you're going to see that this is a real opportunity for the smaller national parks, including the urban national parks, because they often are closer to the population centers," he said. "I think you're going to see many of our urban national parks that ... with the affiliation of classrooms in schools, the private sector is going to step up and want to make sure they're funded.
"We have a number of superintendants from some of the smaller, less iconic parks that view this now as a real opportunity for them."
Added Director Bomar: "Every park will benefit under the new centennial initiative."