How do you think the National Park Service's Centennial Initiative (or Challenge, depending on whom you ask) should be funded? And how do you think those funds should be spent? There were quite a few suggestions tossed about in Washington today as both the House and Senate held hearings on legislation proposing ways to fund the Centennial Initiative.
One thing everyone seemed to agree upon: The Park Service needs more money, and not simply to celebrate its centennial in 2016.
We can only hope Congress can get it figured out before the birthday arrives. But there are a few impediments.
For starters, there are at least two versions of legislation that aim to provide $1 billion or more for the National Park Service to spend in commemoration of its centennial. A main difference between the two bills pending in the House of Representatives is that the administration's proposal calls for upwards of $100 million a year for the next decade -- but only if $100 million is raised annually from private sources -- while the version introduced by Representatives Nick Joe Rahall of West Virginia and Raul Grijalva of Arizona would provide $100 million a year without the need for a match.
And the Bush administration is not at all happy with the billion-dollar funding proposal laid out last month by Misters Rahall and Grijalva.
"We have serious concerns about the funding mechanisms and certain other provisions contained in H.R. 3094," NPS Director Mary Bomar told Rep. Grijalva during a hearing his House subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands held on that legislation and the administration's proposal, H.R. 2959.
And then there's big business, which was represented at the hearing by Gary Kiedaisch, the president and chief executive officer of The Coleman Co. His testimony made it quite clear that the parks should be run more like a business, like destination resorts probably not too far removed from Disney World, than as national parks, touchstones of America's natural, cultural, and historic treasures.
"Imagine recruiting executives from the country's most successful entertainment companies, health-care companies, travel companies, outdoor companies and auto companies, as well as countless others, and setting them to the task of repositioning the national parks as destinations, not just places to visit," said Mr. Kiedaisch. "I ran a four season ski and golf resort and know, all too well, the painful difference. Marketing is what drives business and marketing, along with park revitalization, will be the driving force behind this campaign's success."
Marketing, marketing, marketing. Just imagine the possibilities.
Unfortunately, I couldn't attend the meeting nor listen to it on the web, but I wonder if Mr. Kiedaisch volunteered that his company is a sustaining member of the American Recreation Coalition, which would love to see more ATVs and other motorized toys in the parks?
"Coupled with the right park offerings, visits and length of stay will increase," he said at one point. "By identifying and funding new activities that will attract today's consumer to the parks, participation rises and everyone wins."
Everyone? I wonder what "new activities" The Coleman Co. would like to see in the parks? Perhaps the survey by the Outdoor Industry Association, the one in which two-thirds of the respondents said they preferred a national park vacation filled with solitude, not motorized toys or even bikes, failed to reach Mr. Kiedaisch's desk.
Fortunately, there were others who offered testimony at the two hearings.
Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, made it quite clear that while the current funding attitude in Washington is nice to see in terms of the parks, Congress has a looonnnggg way to go.
"Let me emphasize at the outset ... that this proposal alone will not solve the problems and address all the long- and short-term needs of the parks which have resulted from decades of funding shortfalls during many administrations and Congresses," Mr. Kiernan told the subcommittee. "It must be thought of as one part of a concerted, comprehensive, multi-faceted, multi-year effort to restore and adequately fund the nation's parks. Substantial increases in park funding, particularly for operations in addition to this bill, sustained over many years, will be needed to make the parks whole."
For those who believe the national park system is hurting for visitors, perhaps, just perhaps, a better-funded Park Service could not only buff up the park system but create interpretive programs and activities within the agency's mission statement that would attract more visitors and so do away with the need to turn the Yosemites, Yellowstones, Shenandoahs and Everglades of the system into destination resorts.
"It is essential that the Park Service focus ... on how it needs to evolve in order to fulfill its mission in the next century and to integrate the parks into the lives of more Americans and keep them relevant to the communities in which we live," said Mr. Kiernan. "If that occurs, Congress can be fully justified in making a ten-year commitment to enhanced park funding."
While some folks are concerned that the the philanthropic component of the Centennial Initiative will be tainted by commercialization, Vin Cipolla of the National Park Foundation tried to allay those fears.
"I can assure you that both the foundation and its partners understand and share the concern that corporate support for parks not become confused with and not lead to commercialization," he said. "We will work carefully within Director's Order 21 to ensure that corporate involvement adheres to this guideline. Over the last number of years, we have looked at this issue far too conventionally. Today's media environment creates multiple opportunities for donors and parks to work together in new and creative ways that do not lead to the commercialism of parks."
At the same time, Mr. Cipolla told the subcommittee that corporate partners and philanthropy in general can do wonders for the national park system.
"This renewed interest in encouraging park philanthropy and partnerships creates many opportunities. First is the opportunity to connect and strengthen the fabric of support for parks on a national and local level," he said. "Our parks offer the best investments in the areas of youth-enrichment, education, health, and volunteerism, yet philanthropic potential on a grand scale and in line with contemporary thresholds has not yet been realized."
However, philanthropy should not be viewed as a panacea, cautioned Bill Wade of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
"While we strongly believe in the concept of philanthropic support to national parks, and note the huge values and benefits accrued to the national park system since its inception, we have been very skeptical of the administration's proposed efforts to generate additional funding by including a matching provision in the proposed legislation," said Mr. Wade. "Given what we've all witnessed over the past decade or so relative to the increase in greed in the corporate sector and declining ethical behaviors by both corporate and government officials, it is hard not to be suspicious about the motives of the 'giving' organizations -- especially commercial and some special-interest organizations -- and the quid pro quo expected from, and sometimes provided, by the recipient organizations.
"When coupled with the increased pressures placed on park managers to take advantage of the incentives offered by private money to offset declining budgets, we are very concerned about keeping national parks public and national."
This game is just in the first half, folks, and it will be quite interesting to see how the two pieces of legislation are squeezed, prodded and poked as they move through Congress. Will the politicians be persuaded that the parks should really be operated as destination resorts, complete with all the "marketing" that entails, or will they agree the parks should continue to operate -- hopefully with better funding -- to preserve the unique tapestry of America's natural, cultural and historic resources?