The Bush administration fought back last week against critics of its stewardship of the national park system, releasing a new report that shows record funding for the National Park Service. Interior Secretary Gale Norton said "never before have our parks received so much care," but her statements did little to convince critics who contend the administration is using creative accounting to mislead the public.
"Surreal happy talk that is divorced from the genuinely dire reality of the situation is an insult to the proud history of the national park system and those of us who have devoted our lives to it," said Bill Wade, former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park and spokesman for the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees.
The nonpartisan coalition consists of more than 250 former non-political career employees of the Park Service, including several former directors, deputy directors and regional directors, as well as some 90 former superintendents or assistant superintendents.
The coalition - along with other conservation groups and some Republican and Democratic lawmakers - have repeatedly criticized the Bush administration in the past few months, alleging that political officials are engaged in "smoke and mirror tactics" to hide the fact that America's national parks are in bad shape and are getting worse.
Park advocates say Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton - farthest on Bush's right - and National Park Service Director Fran Mainella are misleading the public about the state of the national parks. (Photo by Paul Morse courtesy White House)
Interior Secretary Norton and Park Service Director Fran Mainella "cannot just smile, pop up for photo opps at parks and then hold news conferences to spin their way out of the neglect and budget slashing of the last three years," said Wade, a 32 year veteran of the park service. "The facts speak for themselves."
But Norton told reporters the new study sets the record straight and said the "big picture is a bright one."
"The budget has more funds per employee, per acre, and per visitor than at any time in the history of the National Park Service," according to the Interior Secretary.
Norton said the current Park Service operations budget of $1.8 billion is 20 percent higher than when President George W. Bush took office in 2001.
The 34 page report touts that Bush has made "substantial progress" for his three priorities for the national parks - improving repair and maintenance of facilities, preserving natural resources, and protecting visitors and employees.
It says record levels of funds are being invested to increase staff and improve facilities at the parks and cites more than 4,000 ongoing or planned improvement projects.
"Visitors are seeing improved trails, more accessible campgrounds, rehabilitated visitor centers, better roads, stabilized historic structures and reduced environmental threats through better sewer, water and drinking systems," said Norton.
Budget cuts have forced the Park Service to close the visitors center at Olympic Park two days a week. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
During his 2000 campaign for the presidency, Bush promised to spend some $5 billion to tackle the maintenance backlog.
Norton said the administration is making good on that pledge and officials say they have spent some $2.9 billion on the maintenance backlog.
Parks advocates contested virtually every statement made by Norton.
"Secretary Norton believes that the national parks are in better condition today than they were three years ago, but proof otherwise is in the parks themselves," said Tom Martin, executive vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). "Instead of spinning the facts, the administration should focus on meeting the unmet needs of the individual parks that American families are visiting this summer."
NPCA and the coalition of retired Park Service employees acknowledge that there is more money for parks per acre, per visitor and per employee than ever before.
But they argue this is only true because in the past three years total employment in the National Park Service has dropped, the number of visitors has declined and the acreage of the park system has remained static.
Likewise, the coalition agrees with the administration that the current appropriation from Congress is the largest in the park service's history, but says more than 85 percent of the parks started out this year with smaller base operating budgets than in the last year.
The parks and the public are "ill served when top Interior and Park Service officials cling desperately to a state of denial about the grave problems that they either created or made much worse at the parks," Wade said.
The report touts some 4,000 projects, including the renovation and repair of historic Many Glacier Hotel in Montana's Glacier National Park. (Photo courtesy Park Service)
In a report released in May, the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees surveyed 12 parks and found that - eight of 12 are operating with less money than last year; all 12 have less employees in 2004 compared to 2003; and six of 12 already have or will cut visitor center hours or days.
Interpretive programs and educational programs are being cut at many of the parks, as are protection patrols and emergency response, according to the coalition, which believes its report reflects cuts occurring at many national parks.
"We have got a big problem today and we need hard work, not defensive rhetoric," Wade said.
Critics say the Bush administration has slowed the average increase of the park service's budget and has siphoned off operating funds for other purposes.
In the first three Bush budget years, the total National Park Service budget increased on average by one percent, according to NPCA, whereas at end of 1990s it was increasing at an annual rate of nine percent.
During the Bush tenure, more than $170 million in operating funds have been diverted to pay for damage from Hurricane Isabel, homeland security and Congressionally mandated pay increases.
In addition, the administration has failed to ask Congress for additional funds to pay for tourism promotion and competitive outsourcing studies.
All this is happening within an agency that has been historically underfunded.
President George W. Bush pitched in with some trail maintenance last year, but questions remain about his parks policy. (Photo by Paul Morse courtesy White House)
According to the NPCA, the national parks are on average operating with only two-thirds of the needed funding - the systemwide annual shortfall is some $600 million.
When adjusted for inflation the National Park Service's operating budget has dropped some 20 percent in the past 25 years.
During this time the park system has increased by more than 50 units and annual visitors have increased some 60 million.
Park advocates also challenge the administration's pledge that it has spent some $2.9 billion on the maintenance backlog. The NPCA says only $662 million of that figure has been new money.
Wade noted that the Park Service has a huge task. It manages 388 parks, 26,000 historic structures and buildings, 8,500 monuments, 12,000 miles of trail, 5,500 miles of paved road and 6,000 miles of unpaved roads.
"The federal government's commitment to maintain those facilities has wavered in recent years," he said. "The first step is to admit there is a problem so that everyone can work together to do something about it."