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More Cash for the Park System May Mean More Services in 2008 and Beyond

As a summer filled with shortages and under-staffing in our park system comes to an end, let's look at some potentially good news about park funding.

Summer never lasts long enough. It's a summer visit to a National Park that defines the classic American family vacation; I already miss the heat of the road, gazing up at the stars on a warm evening, ranger-led campfire programs, and cooling off next to a park lake or river. And so, it is with a little bit of sadness that I present my last National Parks column of the season. Over the course of the summer, I have written articles highlighting some of the threats faced by the Park Service as they work towards their mission to "preserve unimpaired" the natural and historic treasures in the system, threats including new construction, private encroachment, global warming, privatization, and illegal drugs operations. As the winter season approaches, let my last column reflect a ray of hope regarding the parks, some potentially good news about park funding.

The National Park Service had its 91st anniversary in August. In the year 2016, it will celebrate 100 years, and there is great hope that for the anniversary, the gift from the government will be money. The parks are wildly popular, but they have been underfunded for years. The National Parks Conservation Association has found that, on average, most units of the National Park Service are operating more than 30 per cent short of their annual budget. This has led to tremendous problems for the entire system, including fewer park rangers, and crumbling infrastructure -- the current estimate of the maintenance backlog across the system is $8 billion.

President Bush has proposed a ten-year budget program for the National Park Service called the Centennial Initiative. The program, if approved in Congress, could provide up to $3 billion in new money for the agency over the 10 year period. The new money would boost the overall budget to its highest levels in a long time. The budget has two parts, one that covers people (operations), and another which covers projects.

The new budget is generating excitement because there would be enough new money to provide funding for the return of 3,000 seasonal employees. There would be 1,000 seasonals each in interpretation, law enforcement, and maintenance. For those of us visiting the parks next summer, this could mean more evening campfire programs (not just on the weekends), longer visitor center hours, and the return of other public programs which had quietly disappeared when the money dried up.

A majority of the budget would go toward special park projects. In August, Secretary of the Interior, Dirk Kempthorne announced 201 projects that are eligible for the project money in 2008. Consider how this may affect just one park. Here are the projects that could be funded next year in Yellowstone National Park as part of this Centennial Initiative budget:

  • Connecting Science to Visitors and Scientists to Parks: Greater Yellowstone Science Learning Center, $445,000;
  • Inspiring Future Yellowstone Stewards: A No Child Left Inside Initiative, $325,632;
  • Preserving Yellowstone's Stories for the Future: Cataloging and Conserving the Collections, $320,000;
  • Replacing the Old Faithful Visitor Center, $26.1 million
  • A multi-agency study of hydrothermal microbes in Yellowstone Lake, $1 million.

There are problems of course. The Centennial Initiative does very little to address the massive problem of the maintenance backlog. In some regard, the backlog will be reduced when old buildings are torn down in favor of new ones, but at its core, the budget is about "the new," not about fixing "the old." Another big criticism of the budget is that the new projects have been selected based on available private matching funds. When private dollars are involved, there is a sense that the public's best interest comes in second.

The off-season is a wonderful time to visit the National Parks. There are typically fewer people, the weather can reveal a different side of a park, and even the bugs seem to take a vacation. But, there is just something special about a summer visit to the parks. This winter as your mind wanders, and you start daydreaming of magical places like Yellowstone Falls on a hot summer's day, dream too of the friendly park ranger offering some insightful interpretation. If this budget passes, next summer that dream may once again be a reality.

Jeremy Sullivan leads the multimedia focus for the blog, a community driven site with a daily splash of news and notes on our National Parks.

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