White House Lovefest for Parks

Bush at Shenandoah Roundtable : White House PhotoIt seems no one is happier about the newly proposed National Park Service budget than the White House. And why shouldn't they be happy? This is a win-win-win. America's parks get an infusion of cash, America's people can feel good that the parks are getting attention, and America's president can take credit for a job well done. Everyone is very happy with the president today, certainly more than the 30% which typically approve of his job performance. Have a listen to Secretary of the Interior Kempthorne and Park Service Director Bomar gush over the president, it is almost rather embarrassing, a performance that perhaps should have been postponed until Valentine's Day.

[Windows Video (sorry Mac users)] : Shenandoah Roundtable with President Bush

The White House would ask that you pay attention here, Bush is an environmentalist ... always has been. Just ask the White House press secretary Tony Snow:
Q: Tony, I'm curious about this Centennial Parks Initiative. This is a time of very tight budget constraints; even programs like Children's Health Insurance got only the smallest of increases. I'm wondering what brought on this sort of sudden bout of conservationism and a big increase for parks.

MR. SNOW: Sheryl, you haven't been watching. You're talking about a $1-billion federal increase with a $1-billion matching grant. By the way, your characterization of CHIPS, the budget right now is $5 billion. It's going to be increased by -- we're putting $4.8 billion into it over the next five years. That is not an insubstantial increase. As a matter of fact, it's a significant one. Furthermore, there is a real focus right now on making sure that you're dealing with poor Americans.

Q: -- talking about the parks --

MR. SNOW: No, the first thing we've got to do is to talk about the assumption of the question, because it was an argumentative assumption that I think is worth at least trying to pick apart, as well.

The President has been committed to conservationism since the beginning of this administration. Last year, for instance, we set aside the largest natural wildlife reserve on the face of the Earth. This is not new. Just as many people have been saying, wow, isn't the President -- isn't it nice that the President has finally agreed that global warming has manmade components, only to find out, because we've been telling you, that he first started talking about it in June of 2001.

There's been a lot of misreporting, or perhaps it just hasn't -- perhaps folks have not taken notice of the fact that this is an administration that's been keenly committed, both to environmentalism and conservationism from the start. This is important -- this is also a plan to work on the national parks over a 10-year period. So what we're talking about is $1 billion over 10 years for the centennial of the U.S. Park Service, which will -- it seems to me that that's a pretty reasonable down payment.

Q Well, you raise that point about reporting on the President's environmental record. People are starting to say, is George Bush waking up to the environment?

MR. SNOW: Well, the fact is -- actually, the question is, are reporters waking up to his five-year record? The answer is, the long national slumber may be approaching an end.

So, what is my problem?? Why would I be so critical? I do think that George Bush enjoys spending time outdoors. And, I do think that Lara Bush enjoys hiking in the parks. A fellow I used to work with was once the guide for Lara Bush and her party as they did some significant hiking in a national park, all without fanfare -- no television crews, no press core to hype the event. I do believe that George Bush wants to save the parks. And besides, this is not even the first time he has tried to save the parks. Remember this speech in the Everglades, back in happy days before 9/11?
My administration will restore and renew America's national parks. (Applause.) Last week, I announced our National Parks Legacy Project, a major investment in preserving places such as this. We will clear up nearly $5 billion in maintenance to make our parks more inviting and accessible to all Americans.

Well, unfortunately, the maintenance backlog is still a big problem. In fact, it may be an even bigger problem today than it was when Bush promised to fix it. At least he appears sincere when he makes these promises. And there is typically truth to the numbers he gives out. Take the newly proposed budget for instance. According to this statement in the White House Fact Sheet on the National Parks Centennial Initiative, "The President's FY 2008 Parks Budget, Totaling Nearly $2.4 Billion, Is The Largest Ever For Park Operations And Includes The Highest Increase Ever In Parks Operations Funding." Those statements are true, and the increase to park operations is going to be visible to anyone visiting parks in 2008.

( For park related budget comparisons, have a look at this 10 year budget history chart [pdf] prepared by the National Park Service. )

The number I find interesting is the total discretionary dollars. The fact sheet says "nearly $2.4 billion", which actually translates to about $2.364 billion for 2008. What you probably won't hear from the White House is that Bush's first park budget, back in 2002 was for more money. The figure then was $2.380 billion, $16 million more than today's proposal. "But wait," you say,"there is more to the president's proposed plan than just discretionary dollars!"

Yes, there is more to the plan, specifically in the budget considered "Mandatory Appropriations", which is the money that congress can't touch. It is here that the president's big plan to save the parks takes place, the Centennial Challenge. In the 2008 budget, this represents a brand new 200 million dollars. But again, the devil is in the details. As you may have seen, this is not at all guaranteed money. $100 million comes from the feds only if we the people provide the other $100 million (and only if the Congress approves this plan, which has not yet happened). If you've read the National Parks Traveler's analysis of the budget, you'd see that the private sector has never ever come close to raising $100 million in a year for the parks. And as I've asked before, why are the people being challenged to give more money to the feds for the parks when we already have a system for paying federal taxes for these lands, and a system to pay an additional Federal Lands Recreation fee to enter the parks, not to mention the fees we have to pay once we get inside the park (parking fees, interpretation fees, campground fees, backcountry hiking fees)? The scary part of this matching plan, is that if "we the people" don't meet the challenge, the challenge may be happily embraced by "them the corporations". In fact, having corporate dollars drive this plan may be the intent. Two of the six participants invited to the roundtable discussion, set up yesterday by the White House, represent the interests of corporate philanthropy. Derrick Crandall was at the table representing both motorized recreation and the Disney corporation. The National Park Foundation -- with proud partners including Ford, American Airlines, and the Discovery Channel -- was also at the table.

Bottom line: I want to celebrate the arrival of new money into the parks. I want to be as happy as the president is about this. But as I read the numbers, the infusion of discretionary dollars are really not new at all, but represent a return to earlier budgets and a lateral move of money into park operations. And while the possibility of an additional $2 billion dollars over the next 10 years in the parks is awesome, upon closer examination, that money isn't at all guaranteed and half its source may be from a place that ultimately takes the parks closer to a privatized reality.

Comments

"I do think that George Bush enjoys spending time outdoors."

Bush visited Sequoia when I worked there and stayed at the lodge, which had no televisions. So, he was in a national park with hundreds of miles of trails through majestic forests and mountains, and instead of jogging outside in this incredible scenery, he jogged on a treadmill while watching TV. (The lodge remodeled two rooms into a suite, added a treadmill the only TV in the entire complex.) I used to go around saying to friends, "Bush climbed Moro Rock, but Gore climbed Rainier!"
It seems to me that Bush is giving us a bowl of sugary cereal. On the surface, it looks good. Once you get past that though, you realize that it's mostly fluff.

This is a political ploy by Bush to raise approval ratings. Let's call his bluff and demand that the NPS actually receive the funding it deserves. Something as simple as a $10 tax on every American would raise $3 billion a year - wiping out the maintenance backlog within 3-4 years, costing the average family an extra $30/40 dollars on their taxes.
Jr Ranger -- thanks for the comment. You are right, if we were able to get a dollar from every citizen in America, we'd have $300 million a year to towards the parks. Unfortunately, not every American pays federal income tax (little kids for instance). But, we do have corporations which pay taxes. I like what congressman DeFazio had to say in a letter to Kempthorne earlier this year --

"Meanwhile, your Department is abandoning efforts to collect royalties from oil companies who are flush in profits. If the same vigor used to justify fee increases was put towards collecting the appropriate royalties from oil companies the Department and taxpayer might be better off."

The recreation burden doesn't have to be on the backs of the citizens, it should be extracted, in part, from those who are extracting profits from our natural resources.

Nice job with your blog by the way. I've been reading.