Is There A New Dawn For the National Park Service?

Spring wildflowers in Glacier National Park. Kurt Repanshek photo.

A massive influx of dollars is heading towards the National Park System, part due to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, some proposed within the Obama administration's Fiscal 2010 budget proposal. It certainly is a change from the past eight years.

Of course, the fiscal landscape wouldn't look so nice if the nation's economy weren't sputtered along on the shoulder of the road. With a healthy economy, there would have been no American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the $750 million it injected into the National Park Service.

Still, that money is badly needed to help address the park system's sagging infrastructure. Failing sewage treatment plants and water systems will be rebuilt, Dinosaur National Monument will get a new visitor center sooner-than-expected to replace the one that was condemned three years ago because it was falling apart, leaking roofs will be repaired, and on and on and on.

The trick, naturally, will be to see that the park system continues to get adequate funding after these repairs are made to ensure that decay doesn't quickly return. (And, of course, with a maintenance backlog of nearly $9 billion, this infusion only addresses some of the woes.) And it seems that President Obama's budget proposal heads in that direction.

"We’re quite encouraged by the attention of the Obama Administration to the funding plight of the NPS," says Bill Wade, chairman of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees' executive council. "The stimulus package should make a good dent in the maintenance backlog, although it won’t much more than begin to extinguish it; and there are still worries about the NPS’s ability to do it all effectively, given the existing deficiencies in contracting capability and to some extent project supervision.

"The FY2010 budget request looks quite good and we’re pleased to see some attention to the LWCF ($419.9 million proposed for the Land and Water Conservation Fund) finally," Mr. Wade adds. "One never knows what the Congress will do, especially in the face of the economic situation, but if they follow past practice, they should pass the budget with at least what has been requested."

Overall, the NPS's proposed FY2010 budget contains $3.13 billion. Of that, $2.7 billion would go for operation of the National Park System, and $433 million for the NPS's community programs. The budget, which gets some congressional review this week, reflects a $100 million increase in park operations funding from current levels. That $100 million I'm told essentially reflects the administration's continuation of President Bush's $100 million appropriation, intended to be provided annually, to help the National Park Service prepare the parks for the agency's centennial in 2016.

The budget also contains $25 million for the "Park Partnerships" program, which is the Obama administration's name for President Bush's Centennial Challenge program. While President Bush envisioned the federal government funding this at up to $100 million annually, with hopes private organizations would match it on a dollar-for-dollar basis, the government has never provided that much in any one year. While the glow might be gone from this program -- was it ever there? -- the Park Service retirees aren't particularly concerned.

"We’re not worried at this point about the lack of prominence on the Centennial Initiative – especially the matching funds emphasis of the last administration. In our judgment, that was fraught with a serious pitfalls," says Mr. Wade. "We think that the time for the administration and the Congress to take up the issue of Centennial funding will be after the report and recommendations of the Second Century Commission are delivered – due in September. That should give elected officials an informed blueprint of how to proceed leading up to, and following the 100th anniversary of the NPS."

Other highlights of the president's budget proposal for the parks?

* $10 million for "a focused analysis on the impacts of changes in climate on the condition of natural resources in the parks. The budget request will provide $5.5 million to develop land, water, and wildlife adaptation strategies, $3 million that will use the existing NPS natural resource network to build a climate change monitoring system, $700,000 for project seed money to parks, and $800,000 to assemble a Climate Change Response Office that will develop a service-wide approach to research."

* $5 million for the NPS ($50 million across all Interior agencies) to develop a 21st Century Youth Conservation Corps, which will work "to develop new ways to engage youth in nature and help them achieve an environmental awareness and respect for resources."

* $206 million for construction needs in the park system, and $199.1 million for cyclic maintenance and repair and rehabilitation projects.

* $77.7 million for historic preservation projects.

* $43.2 million to address "fixed" costs, such as employee pay and health care costs.

* $10.5 million to help with the Great Lakes Restoration initiative. The Environmental Protection Agency is proposed to receive $475 million for this work, and the Park Service's $10.5 million wll help the U.S. Coast Guard "identify sources of contamination and to remediate and restore affected areas in multiple parks, with a focus on sites of previous light station activity, dumps, and fuel spills. The NPS will also monitor mercury, lead, DDT, and other contaminants in six national parks on the Great Lakes."