Bush Touts Parks Record

THOUSAND OAKS, California, August 15, 2003 (ENS) President George W. Bush picked up a shovel today and lent a hand to a trail restoration project in Santa Monica Mountains National Recreational Area, determined to showcase his care for the national park system.

The president said his administration is "slowly but surely" beginning to deal with the $4.9 billion maintenance and repair backlog that plagues the national park system, but critics are far from convinced.

"Our park system is the crown jewel of America's recreation system," Bush told the audience at the recreation area northwest of Los Angeles.

But the responsibility to maintain our parks "has not always been met in America," he said.

Bush, who as a presidential candidate promised to eliminate the $4.9 billion maintenance backlog, says he is meeting that responsibility.

He said he has committed some $2.9 billion toward this backlog and has asked Congress to provide $5 billion over the next five years for the parks to keep this momentum going. Bush

President George W. Bush pitched in with some trail maintenance today, but questions remain about his parks policy. (Photo by Paul Morse courtesy White House)
"We have got a national asset that in some cases needs needed repairs, and now is the time to get after it, on behalf of the American people," he said.

The president touted his administration's efforts and said it has completed 900 completed backlog projects and has 900 more underway.

And of vital importance, Bush said, is his administration's work on a new inventory plan to better assess the real maintenance needs of the parks.

"For many years, our federal government did not even have the basic information it needed to set priorities about what should be repaired or not repaired," Bush said. "When you get an assessment of what is needed, we can set priorities. "

Some 15,000 park facilities were inventoried in 2002, according to the White House, and by the end of 2004 all 388 national parks will have assessed the conditions of buildings and roads.

Conservationists say the president is not shooting straight with his parks record.

The president's visit was just a "photo op offering spin over substance," said Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

The facts "do not support the administration's charge," that it has spent $2.9 billion on the maintenance backlog, Kiernan said.

The administration has spent $370 million in new money on the maintenance backlog, he said, explaining that the balance of $2.9 billion figure was money already in the pipeline for projects not yet in the backlog total.

"The president and his administration continue to claim progress on the national parks when they are clearly not making that progress.," said Chris Fitzsimon, program director of the Campaign to Protect America's Lands. "They have a credibility problem."

Although Bush showed no such signs today, there has been at least one occasion when the administration has backed away from its maintenance claim and appeared to agree with the assessment of its critics.

At Senate hearing in July, Park Service Deputy Director Donald Murphy touted the administration's report that said it had spent $2.9 billion on the backlog. But when pressed by the committee, Murphy acknowledged that "roughly $200 million to $300 million" of that figure was new money above appropriations earmarked for annual maintenance. bushcrew

Bush smells a branch of sage with Ralph Waycott, volunteer coordinator of the Rancho Sierra Vista Nursery.(Photo by Paul Morse courtesy White House)
To get a real handle on the administration's commitment to clearing the maintenance backlog, critics say, take a look at the operating funds afforded the Park Service under its watch.

On average, U.S. national parks are operating with only two-thirds of the needed funding, according to the NPCA, which believes the Park Service needs $600 million more annually to adequately manage the national park system.

"Today's operating deficit is tomorrow's maintenance backlog," said Bill Wade, former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park.

In the last three years the total Park Service budget has only increased on average by one percent, Kiernan says, whereas at end of 1990s it was increasing at an annual rate of nine percent.

The Bush administration proposed $2.4 billion for the Park Service in fiscal year 2004, a net increase of $8.3 million over its 2003 request.

"The current staffing situation and annual operating budgets are inadequate and as such will just continue to stymie the Park Service from carrying out its mission," said Don Castleberry, a 32 year veteran of the Park Service who retired as regional director for Midwest region. "Too much time is being spent on inventory and assessments on what the backlog is, rather than attacking the backlog."

But laying all the blame for the woes of the Park Service at Bush's feet is unfair, the president's supporters say. Congress has the final say on the budget for the national parks and new units are placing further weight on the overburdened agency.

There have been 14 new units added in the past five years - 11 by Congress and three by President Bill Clinton. bushcrew

Bush was joined today by Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton - farthest on his right - and National Park Service Director Fran Mainella. (Photo by Paul Morse courtesy White House)
"We have got to get a commitment from the appropriators in Congress to spend enough money to maintain our parks," Bush said, calling on Congress to spend $5 billion over the next five years.

"I made that call two years ago," he said. "I said, if you are interested in helping us maintain the park system, put some money out there so that we can actually do the job."

Bush touted the role of volunteers in the helping preserve and maintain the national parks. The effort of volunteers is "one of the things that makes the park systems go and really function well," the president said.

Critics say he should spend a bit more time thinking about the efforts of Park Service employees.

They say Park Service morale has tumbled to an all time low under the Bush administration, largely from the administration's plan to outsource more of the agency's workforce as well as its failure to enforce clean air laws and its willingness to cede authority over federal lands to local interests.

A letter signed by some 130 former high ranking career Park Service officials highlighting these concerns was sent to Bush and Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton today, urging them to recommit to safeguarding the national parks.

"We just simply can not keep operating the parks under budgeted, understaffed," said Castleberry, who signed the letter. "It is a very disheartening scenario."