Private, Corporate Donations Sought to Fund U.S. National Parks

By Sunny Lewis

HONOLULU, Hawaii, December 5, 2005 (ENS) - More than 55 Congressmen have signed on to legislation that would effectively privatize the national parks in order to fund their expenses. Congressman Mark Souder, an Indiana Republican, has written the bill that he believes would eliminate the parks' annual funding shortfalls and maintenance backlog by the year 2016 when the country celebrates the 100th anniversary of the National Park System - by encouraging individual and corporate donations.

Souder was in Honolulu on Thursday for the sixth in a series of hearings across the country to build support for his bill, the National Park Centennial Act, H.R. 1124. Souder is interested in hearing about the funding shortfalls in the national parks in his role as chairman of the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources of the House Committee on Government Reform, which has jurisdiction over the national parks. Souder is also a member of the House Resources Committee, to which his bill has been referred.

Souder was joined for the hearing by Hawaii Congressmen Neil Abercrombie and Ed Case, both Democrats. Case is a co-sponsor of the National Park Centennial Act, but Abercrombie is not.


Congressman Mark Souder of Indiana is touring the United States holding hearings about the financial state of the national parks. (Photo Sunny Lewis)
The lawmakers heard testimony from Frank Hays, the Pacific Area Director of the National Park Service, and the superintendents of three of Hawaii's seven national parks.

A second panel of witnesses included representatives of the Nature Conservancy, the National Parks Conservation Association, and Friends of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, as well as a spokesman for the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial Museum Association. The U.S. Navy memorial, commemorating those who died in the World War II attack on Pearl Harbor, is operated by the National Park Service.

Because Hawaii's parks lack adequate funding, invasive species - from noisy coqui frogs, to invasive marine algae, to a new rust that attacks native ohia trees - are running rampant, Souder was told.

Congressman Case has introduced a bill to require the same or greater level of federal inspection of all visitor and cargo shipments arriving in Hawaii from domestic and foreign locations as now exists for outgoing traffic - an expensive proposition. Case said such a law is the only way to overcome "a true crisis" caused by invasive species and diseases.

Hawaii's parks are popular and many are overcrowded, the park superintendents said. Haleakala National Park on Maui attracts 1.5 million visitors a year, and many people are turned away from sunrise viewing at the summit because it is too crowded.


Inside the volcanic crater at Haleakala National Park too many visitors are damaging fragile trails. (Photo courtesy NPS)
Haleakala Superintendent Marilyn Parris told the hearing, "Native Hawaiians don't come to the park any more. Too many visitors are trampling the sacred sites."

Congressman Abercrombie is most concerned about the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, which also attracts about 1.5 million people each year - so many that visitors not in line by 7:30 each morning are usually turned away without tickets. A new $30 to $40 million visitor center and ticketing improvements are planned, and Abercrombie would like to see a transit station that serves the memorial if Honolulu decides to build a rapid transit system.

Hays said Hawaii National Park units received about $19 million in operations and maintenance funding in fiscal year 2005, an increase of about six percent over last year. He emphasized the public-private partnerships the National Park Service is involved in such as invasive species committees and a land management effort involving state and federal entities and private landowners.

Chronic funding shortfalls have created annual gaps in operational funding for the National Park System that exceed $600 million, and the current maintenance backlog is estimated by the General Accountability Office at between $4 billion and $6.8 billion.

Souder's approach to funding the needs of the National Parks is focused on the contributions of private citizens and corporations, a reversal of the way the parks are funded today, by the federal government.


(From left) Congressmen Ed Case, Neil Abercrobie and Mark Souder listen to Hawaii National Park superintendents describe the effects funding shortfalls are having on the parks they manage. (Photo Sunny Lewis)
Souder's legislation, the National Park Centennial Act, which establishes the National Park Centennial Fund in the Treasury, was introduced in March and has 59 co-sponsors.

It would amend the Internal Revenue Code to allow individual taxpayers to designate overpayments and contributions for the benefit of the National Park System. The legislation provides new funding for the parks in part from a voluntary check-off on federal income tax returns. Congress would also contribute to support the parks.

Souder described the process, saying, "First let's let citizens give money, and the federal government will match or make up those funding gaps."

"If you give $50 the federal government will give $50," Souder said, "if you give $100, the government will give $100, if a corporation gives in $100,000, the government will put in $100,000."

"We could either do it as a credit off your tax return or let you take it as a deduction," he said.

According to an April poll conducted by Zogby International on behalf of the National Parks Conservation Association, 61 percent of likely voters said they were likely to donate to the national parks if given the option to do so on their federal tax returns. Based on the number of tax returns filed in 2002, survey results indicate that as much as $650 million could be realized annually with the addition of a check-off box benefiting the parks on federal tax returns.

Souder says his Indiana district would not benefit from the measure since there is no federal land included within the district's boundaries. His hearings on funding shortfalls in the national parks will continue into the new year.

While the Souder bill's co-sponsors are drawn from both sides of the aisle, the idea of allowing corporate sponsorships in the national parks has its critics. Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national association of government employees in natural resources agencies, is one of them.

"This starts a slow motion commercialization of the national park system," Ruch said on Wednesday.


Hawaii Volcanoes National Park offers unique accessibility to two of the most active volcanoes in the world - Kilauea and Mauna Loa. (Photo courtesy NPS)
Currently the National Park Service raises an estimated $17 million from outside sources each year, and this bill is designed so that private donations develop into a more significant factor in the parks budget.

The National Park Service has issued a draft directive encouraging active pursuit of potential financial donors and repealing the agency's current passive posture of accepting donations. The directive liberalizes the policy offering naming rights for trails, benches, rooms and other facilities, but not parks themselves. It allows display of commercial logos and slogans on park literature, computer screens and plaques.

The plan reverses bans against accepting or soliciting donations from vendors, concessionaires and others doing business with the parks.

"Large corporate donations exert a not-so-subtle gravitational pull on park managers who are increasingly dependent on these donors for their budgets," Ruch said.

He said PEER is already hearing from park employees who have been transferred or reassigned to placate donors. "Influence peddling will soon become a major recreational activity in our national parks," he said.

The Fiscal Year 2005 budget is approximately $1.7 billion to cover operating expenses for the 388 units presently within the National Park System.

The National Park Centennial Act has been referred to two committees - the Subcommittee on National Parks of the House Resources Committee, and the House Ways and Means Committee.