When It Comes to National Parks, is it an "Earmark" or Prudent Spending?

Following dollars as they wend their way through the congressional budget process is not a pretty thing.

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.

Good reading!

Comments

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?

I think we can all agree that this is no way to manage parks.

It's no way to manage anything!

On a related note I worry what will become of the parks when the inevitable federal bankruptcy occurs in the very near future. There are no contingency plans and the way things are going now the collapse will be much sooner than anyone can imagine.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed, hoping that they come out of the looming fiscal disaster with some semblance of care and stewardship. The federal charade is ending and something unknown will take its place. Let's hope for the best.

In this case the significant issue with earmarking is this:
- the National Park Service is given an amount of discretionary funding in the budget
- without earmarks, those funds will be directed towards projects determined by the mostly career staff at the National Park Service
- withe earmarks, those funds are directed towards projects determined by individual legislators, largely based on seniority and the "luck of the draw" in the committee assignment system

There's a case to be made that decision on spending taxpayer dollars are best made by elected legislators, and while the elected officials must surely be left in charge of the big picture, there are certainly many who would make the case that individual project decisions are best made by the career staff (admittedly with oversight by political appointees) in the executive branch of the government.


Yes, this tension between "professional" funding distribution and distribution of the funds by Congress will always be there.

There is need for both, and the balance can go to far, either way. We have seen some horribly micro-managing congressional staff on the appropriations committee, who think they should run the NPS down to every detail. But:

The fact is, as long as America is a representative democratic republic, there must be politics in the system, and smart and dedicated professionals will accept that, and learn how to work with it.

The American people and their Representatives must actually back and believe in the spending or the program, or it will die. Professionals and bureaucrats, when left to their own devices -- even when extremely meritorious -- tend to look inward and not pay attention to the politics. NPS professionals in particular tend to see politics as distasteful, and political decisions as chaotic. But it is suicide to think you can ignore, or not be good, at the politics.

Sometimes, Congress initiates wonderful programs or projects the bureaucracy never would have supported on its own. Many of the wonderful initiatives first had strong backing by an enlightened public. They are not all whim and fancy of an over-powerful Member of Congress. Sometimes, without the strong power of a strong Member of Congress, good things would never get done at all.

We need our public servants to be effective at communicating with politicians and with the public(s) that motivate the politicians. You don't have to "lobby" to effectively communicate. This ability should be a critical ability for every park superintendent, and no superintendent should be appointed if that person is not already skilled at partnership and politics, with a small p.

Politicians need to know that delivering for the broad needs of the National Parks System -- not just construction projects -- is a critical measure of their success. It will not improve things by repressing those congressional people who are effective at getting money. It should be the goal to have every park -- and every agency -- develop the ability to sell their mission to the American people and their reps.

If they cannot do it, they don't deserve the money. This is a democratic republic folks. Those Members of Congress are written into the Constitution. Park superintendents and rangers, strange to say it, are not in the Constitution. Neither are high-minded public interest organizations.