Over the coming months there will be a flurry of construction work across the National Park System thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But then what?
True, the $920 million contained in the legislation for the national parks is a nice chunk of change. But it also pales when compared to the $2.25 billion that the House of Representatives, under the urging of Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Washington, inserted into its version of the bill, and falls far, far shy of the estimated $9 billion maintenance backlog carried by the National Park Service.
Word of the parks' slice of the stimulus package somewhat surprisingly drew scant comment from Traveler readers. One comment that stood out, though, centered on why Congress wouldn't go beyond $920 million in economic stimulus funds for the parks, and questioned whether park advocacy groups dropped the ball on lobbying for the national parks because they were "perhaps too distracted by a guns issue that may not ultimately impact most park visitors to have successfully made that case..."
You no doubt could debate long and hard why the parks were valued at $920 million when it came to stimulus funds, with perhaps no satisfactory conclusion. But some thoughts surface:
* Did special interest groups miss the stimulus lobbying boat because they were too focused on the guns in the parks issue? I don't think so. Indeed, "green groups" as a whole were working hard long before the new year to raise the profile of public lands' needs in the eyes of the incoming administration. Back in November they published a 400-page document outlining and highlighting those needs.
* Not too long ago someone in one of those groups told me the National Park Systems' visibility problem stemmed from the fact that most folks view the park system as being in decent shape. And certainly, when you compare it to the nation's education or health care systems, I think that's probably accurate. Indeed, this is what Congressman Mark Souder, R-Indiana, who a few years ago spent a good deal of time trying to assess the condition of the national parks, told me at the time: "While the parks are not in pristine condition, they are not, as a whole, in imminent danger of being ruined. They are currently in a slow decline."
* If one looks back over the years, I think a trend that can be distilled without much effort is that when it comes to Congress and the park system, congressfolk love to see parks in their districts, but don't work equally hard to see those parks well-funded.
* Politicians think in election cycles. Remember the time Reps. Souder and Brian Baird, D-Washington, spent 18+ months trekking to national park locations around the country to take the pulse of the park system? Remember the report they prepared? Oh, wait, they never did prepare a report, because when the House turned Democrat Mr. Souder lost his chairmanship of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources and its resources, which he was tapping to study the plight of the parks. Why Mr. Baird didn't continue the review I don't know.
In talking to those with a keener feel for Congress, I'm told that the national parks actually did quite well with the $920 million they garnered through the stimulus legislation, particularly when you consider the other land-management agencies. Here's a look at how land-management agencies fared, courtesy of Fly, Rod and Reel Online:
Much of the funding is directed towards construction, repair or maintenance or habitat restoration on federal public lands. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is targeted to get $115 million for construction, while the Bureau of Land Management will receive $180 million and the National Park Service will receive $589 million. Resource and land-management programs also received substantial new funds including $165 million for FWS, $125 million for BLM and $146 million for NPS. A combined Capital Improvement and Maintenance fund for the U.S. Forest Service was allocated $650 million. In general, each agency will be using the stimulus funding in these accounts to address deferred maintenance and capital improvements, energy conservation, trail maintenance, watershed improvement, and more.
Both the BLM and USFS are slated to get funding for wildland fire management. The BLM will receive $15 million, whereas the USFS will receive $500 million. Of the USFS funding, half will be dedicated to hazardous fuel reduction, forest health protection, rehabilitation and hazard mitigation on federal lands, and the other half will be dedicated towards cooperative efforts on state and private lands. Funded through the Federal Highway Administration, the Department of Interior land management agencies also are to receive funding for road construction or improvement—$170 million for the NPS, $60 million for the USFS, and $10 million for the FWS.
Over at the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, Bill Wade is taking a wait-and-see attitude on how helpful the $920 million will be to the Park Service.
"I think it is too early to see how all this is going to sort out," says Mr. Wade. "My assumption is that some, maybe quite a bit, of the money can be directed to projects that are considered 'maintenance backlog.' It just depends on how the NPS sorts out the projects it can get underway in the context of the stimulus."
With the next few months going to be taken up by the Park Service, Interior Department officials, and Congress deciding how best to spend that stimulus in the National Park System, the larger question that remains is how the parks will fare under the Obama administration in the long run. The early signs are favorable:
* Interior Secretary Ken Salazar early in February directed the Bureau of Land Management to withdraw a series of controversial oil and gas leases near national parks in Utah, saying a more thorough environmental review was needed to determine whether their development would imperil Arches and Canyonlands national parks or Dinosaur National Monument.
* Secretary Salazar also called for a review of the Bush administration decision to allow national park visitors to arm themselves.
* The administration's proposed 2010 budget, though not yet available in detail, proposes a $500-$700 million boost from the current Interior Department appropriation, and would provide $100 million over-and-above the National Park Service's operations budget as well as $25 million that would be released when matched by private giving for park-related projects. (While that combined $125 million is a carryover of sorts from the Bush administration's Centennial Challenge plan to see the National Park Service gain an extra $3 billion by the agency's centennial in 2016, the Obama administration dislikes the "Centennial Challenge" name and is looking for a new slogan.)
Over at the National Parks Conservation Association, President Tom Kiernan so far is satisfied with what he's seeing from the new administration.
“In keeping with his campaign promise to address the critical needs of our national parks, President Obama has proposed a fiscal year 2010 budget for the national parks that continues the federal commitment toward restoring our national parks in time for the 2016 centennial of the National Park Service," said Mr. Kiernan. "The president’s budget proposal includes an increase of $100 million plus inflation to operate and maintain our national parks, funds the parks’ public-private partnership program, and offers a solid commitment to fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which would help to prevent inappropriate development inside national parks.
"... The Obama Administration clearly recognizes the importance of national parks to our economy, American jobs, quality of life, and future, and, as evident by this budget proposal, intends to help protect this legacy for our children and grandchildren.”
The trick from here on out will be to see that the administration continues to value the parks, and that will require Americans to let Congress and the administration know how they value them.