As Congress works on the Omnibus Spending Bill of 2009, that hefty appropriations catchall that funds government, critics have pointed to more than 8,500 "earmarks." But is that word truly a pejorative when it comes to the National Park System (or any other federal agency, for that matter)?
That's a great question, one that's not always easily answered.
For instance, should the government in tough economic times such as these be spending $20 million on "Save America's Treasures" projects? These are projects "for the protection of our nation’s endangered and irreplaceable and endangered cultural heritage," according to the National Park Service.
While administered by the Park Service, the dollars don't go to the agency for use in the National Park System. No, these dollars are given to private groups in the form of grants.
Grants are available for preservation and/or conservation work on nationally significant intellectual and cultural artifacts and historic structures and sites. Intellectual and cultural artifacts include artifacts, collections, documents, sculpture, and works of art. Historic structures and sites include historic districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects.
Grants are awarded to federal, state, local, and tribal government entities, and non-profit organizations through a competitive matching-grant program, administered by the National Park Service in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
In the House of Representatives' version of the spending bill, some of the $10 million (out of the $20 million deposited into the Interior Department's appropriation) earmarked for such projects would go towards such things as work on the historic entryway to Glendale, Arizona ($200,000), the Shipyard 3 Historic District in Richmond, California ($150,000), the Mission San Carlos in Carmel, California ($650,000), the Tennessee State Museum ($400,000), the Ideson Library in Houston, Texas ($300,000), and the Fisherman's Hall in Charles Town, West Virginia ($125,000).
Now, without additional details, it's hard to say whether these projects desperately need this funding. But it's probably not unreasonable to say that these earmarks are, in some circles, giving the National Park Service a black eye, as fiscal hawks will point to the grants as bad "national park" spending in these times ... even though the dollars aren't being spent in the parks.
The problem with the legislative process (OK, "a" problem, as there are many) is that it's not always easy to tell from legislation whether funding, earmarked or otherwise appropriated, is being well-spent.
For instance, the Interior Department appropriations measure that was supported by the House majority called for $60 million for Everglades National Park to help with the "Modified Water Deliveries Project. $50 million of this would go to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to "allow construction of the first Tamiami Trail Bridge. The bridge is needed, proponents say, to help improve water movement through the Everglades. But they also say this is only one small step.
That appropriation is seemingly quite clear, even if you don't agree with it. However, much of the rest leads to a guessing game. For instance, under "construction," the following amounts, without explanation, are called out:
* $2.56 million for Denali National Park
* $680,000 for national parks in California (the "mines" set off in parenthesis in this item would lead one to believe this money is being appropriated for abandoned mine lands work, which is a good thing)
* $5.48 million for Redwoods National Park
* $1.27 million for Rocky Mountain National Park
* $10 million for the Jefferson Memorial
* $5 million for Boston Harbors Islands (NRA) Pavilion
* $7 million for the Blue Ridge Parkway
* $3 million for Cape Hatteras National Seashore
* $7.2 million for the Fort Raleigh National Historical Site
* $4.86 million for Big Bend National Park
* $5 million for Apostle Islands National Lakeshore -- lighthouse reconstructions (OK, an explanation)
* $20 million for Olympic National Park (Presumably to carry on restoration of the Elwha area following the dam's removal)
There's a similarly hefty list of land acquisition earmarks for the Park Service:
* $2.6 million for New River Gorge National River
* $4 million for Golden Gate National Recreation Area
* $1.75 million for Cape Cod National Seashore
* $1.375 for the Appalachian National Scenic Trail
* $2.69 million for Congaree National Park
* $2.25 million for Virgin Islands National Park
* $1.8 million for Mount Rainier National Park
* $2 million for Harper's Ferry National Historic Park
* Another $500,000 for New River Gorge National River
As you can readily see, the problem is there's no explanation for what these funds are being spent on. They might be readily justifiable projects -- indeed, the National Park System has many worthy needs, needs that are practically screaming for attention -- but who can tell?
Not the National Park Service. The agency's communications staff in Washington, D.C., said they'd have to call each park that carries an appropriation to inquire, and then the answer they'd more than likely get is "we don't know."
Hard to believe? Well, the problem, you see, is that politicians go back to their states and districts, stop into their favorite unit of the National Park System, and ask what needs exist. They then are given a (usually long) list of projects waiting for funding, and then head back to Washington with a number in their head that they then inject into the most convenient appropriations vehicle.
The folks back at the park, I'm told, more often than not don't know about the appropriation until after the fact. The other side of the coin is that in these times of staff shortages, does the National Park Service have the contracting staff to process all these projects, if they somehow get funded?
If you'd like to take a shot at deciphering the proposed spending, head over to this site, and then scroll down until you reach "Division E -- Interior, Environment and Related Agencies" and dig in.