Funding issues threaten national parks across U.S.

Posted: Friday, September 16, 2005

SEATTLE (AP) — Chronic underfunding is one of the most pervasive challenges facing America’s national parks and has led to diminishing services and severe cutbacks in personnel, park advocates and former administrators told a congressional subcommittee Monday.

Concerned for the future, representatives of the National Parks Conservation Association called on Congress to increase the National Park Service budget and pass a bill to eliminate a costly maintenance backlog.

U.S. lawmakers this year approved a $60.5 million increase over the $1.7 billion operations budget the park service had last year.

Advocates say the increase isn’t enough.

Annually, there’s a $600 million shortfall in the park service budget, which means it has only two-thirds the money needed to adequately run the country’s parks, said Craig Obey, the association’s vice president of government affairs. He attended Monday’s hearing at Lewis Creek Visitor Center in Bellevue, east of Seattle.

To make up for limited funding, parks have reduced staff and deferred basic maintenance, Obey said in a telephone interview. That has contributed to a maintenance backlog estimated between $4.5 billion and $9 billion, he said.

According to testimony, Mount Rainier National Park alone has a maintenance backlog of more than $70 million. And Olympic National Park since 2001 has reduced its seasonal rangers from 130 to 25 in 2004.

‘‘There is not a park here in the Pacific Northwest that isn’t being forced to leave important jobs undone or staff positions unfilled because of insufficient budgets,’’ Russ Dickenson, former National Park Service director, said in his written testimony.

He also noted proposed changes to the agency’s mission, which could affect policy on how it preserves natural and cultural spaces and artifacts for future generations.

‘‘Even if we are able to tackle the enormous fiscal crises facing our national parks, the change to Park Service management policies ... poses every bit as insidious a risk to the future of our national parks,’’ said Dickenson.

Without better funding, the agency risks losing support from the public, as well as private organizations that have supplemented a waning budget, association board member Sally Jewell told the House subcommittee that is studying park service funding.

‘‘The private sector and philanthropy expects to see a return on its investment. For when the private sector sees itself supplanting, rather than supplementing funding for our parks, they will retreat,’’ she said.

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