In a move that can be expected to generate some attention from the White House, two prominent members of the House of Representatives have introduced a billion-dollar centennial funding bill for the national park system. Two big differences from President Bush's initiative: no private matching funds are required, and this package has an identified funding source.
The legislation, which was unceremoniously announced this afternoon by Representatives Nick Joe Rahall and Raul Grijalva on the House Resource Committee's website with absolutely no fanfare, calls for $100 million a year to be used for National Park Service centennial projects each year from 2008 through 2017.
As it's currently written (you can find a PDF of the legislation at the bottom of this post), each administration would be required to submit to Congress a list of projects proposed for funding. Any unspent money would then be dispersed for projects directly related to education in the parks (30 percent), capital improvement needs (30 percent), enhancing diversity both in the National Park Service and in the parks (10 percent), Park Service professional development (10 percent), environmental leadership (10 percent), and natural resource protection (10 percent).
Under the president's proposal, the Interior secretary, not Congress, would pick and choose which projects he/she wanted funded.
“This centennial is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to passing on our National Parks to future generations in even better shape than we found them,” says Rep. Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands. “The initiatives funded though this legislation, especially those which will use our Parks as classrooms for young people, will create new generations of stewards to safeguard our National Parks for the next 100 years.”
Under their proposal, $100 million a year for the park system would be generated over the next decade through fees on commercial activities on public lands. Shrewdly, the legislation leaves it up to the Interior secretary to identify those fees.
Not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall promulgate regulations to establish new fees or fee increases for commercial activities, including leases, on Federal lands administered by the Secretary. Such fee or fee increases shall apply to any commercial activity, including leases, in effect on the date final regulations are promulgated under this subsection or thereafter.
The way Rep. Rahall touts the bill, you'd think it was a "do-everything measure" for the parks.
“Our National Parks tell the story of America, but over the past six years, the Bush Administration’s budget priorities have been an ongoing tale of severe underfunding for our Parks,” he says. "This bill will provide the funding increase our parks deserve, and will equip the National Park Service with a host of new tools to inspire young people, encourage diversity and professional development, respond to climate change, and lead conservation efforts by example.”
That's a nice intent, but in light of the Park Service's current financial woes, $1 billion isn't going to go very far. But at least it's a step in the right direction.
At the National Parks Conservation Association, Blake Selzer tells me his organization is happy to see the proposed legislation.
"On first blush, it looks like something we could definitely support," he says.
And while the measure does not require a private match, Mr. Selzer says that might be a good thing.
"It also doesn't discourage it," he points out, adding that, "You could argue that one of the things it can help with is the problem that a match might have on the have- and have-not parks. Some of the have-not parks don't have the big partners."
Too, Mr. Selzer notes that under this legislation the Park Service would definitely get an extra $100 million a year for the next decade, whereas under the administration's proposal how much funding would be provided depends directly on how much charitable giving is received. "If this bill were enacted, you'd have $100 million every year. You wouldn't have 'up to' $100 million (in federal funding)," he said.
Of course, under the president's proposal if the private sector contributed, for instance $60 million in one year, the government would match that for a total of $120 million. Conversely, if private giving only reached $40 million, the parks would only get $80 million that year.
Here's another nice little aspect of the legislation: It specifically states that this funding shall supplement, not replace, the Park Service's annual budget appropriation, and that full-time NPS employees can't be displaced by funded projects.
Amounts made available from the Fund shall supplement rather than replace annual expenditures by the National Park Service, including authorized expenditures from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the National Park Service Line Item Construction Program. The National Park Service shall maintain adequate, permanent staffing levels and permanent staff shall not be replaced with non-permanent employees hired to carry out this Act or Projects carried out with funds provided under this Act.
What will be interesting to see is not only whether this bill gains traction in Congress, but what America's charitable community thinks of it. After all, the president wants to use a $1 billion carrot to entice $1 billion in charitable giving to the parks. If the Rahall-Grijalva bill passes, will that discourage private giving, or will the dollars pour in just the same?
Also interesting to see is what the president thinks of it. He's been known to loathe measures that aren't just as he envisions them.
Here's one final interesting tidbit: on August 2 a Senate hearing is scheduled for the administration's centennial initiative proposal ... as well as a House hearing on this bill.