AUSTIN, Texas, October 15, 2007 (ENS) - First Lady Laura Bush today convened the National Park Foundation's first Leadership Summit on Partnership and Philanthropy to benefit national parks at the University of Texas at Austin.
The gathering is intended to advance the Bush administration's solution for dealing with the perennial financial problems of maintaining the 58 U.S. national parks and hundreds of other national monuments, lakeshores, battlefields, wild and scenic reivers, trails and historic areas.
Today, there is an annual $600 million operations shortfall throughout the National Park System. The deferred maintenance backlog is now estimated by park officials at approximately $8 billion.
First Lady Laura Bush at the Summit on Partnership and Philanthropy (Photo courtesy The White House)
Opening the conference this morning, Laura Bush said, "Making sure Americans share that sense of responsibility for our national treasures is central to the National Park Foundation's mission. 2007 is the 40th anniversary of the National Park Foundation, and this Leadership Summit on Partnership and Philanthropy is a great way to celebrate this milestone."
On August 25, 2006, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced the Centennial Initiative. He proposed that $100 million dollars of Federal funds, for 10 years beginning in Fiscal Year 2008, be leveraged with equal private donations to restore the national parks by their centennial year - 2016.
In August 2007, the National Park Service, NPS, announced over 200 projects that qualified for inclusion in the Initiative’s first year.
Secretary Kempthorne said, "The driving force behind the creation of our National Park System was the sheer will of the American people who set aside thousands of acres of wilderness for all to enjoy. And now, as we look forward to celebrating our 100th anniversary in 2016, it will be this same spirit of giving and public philanthropy that will keep our parks thriving for the next century."
Vin Cipolla, President and CEO of the National Park Foundation said, "The Leadership Summit will help raise awareness about the importance of private, corporate, and philanthropic support in preserving our parks so that our children and their grandchildren may enjoy them for generations to come."
In the face of public criticism, the National Park Service has reversed its previously announced plans to increase corporate donations through direct solicitations by park officials in return for greater "donor recognition" in the form of in-park displays and christening of park features - the Nike Trail, for instance, or Coca-Cola Hill. The reversal was announced in May 2006 after many critical comments were received.
Instead, the Park Service will allow corporate advertising featuring a tie-in to donation to park causes but would forbid corporate use of the NPS arrowhead symbol or the agency uniform. Donor plaques or other "non-intrusive displays" will be allowed, as will web and video links from park websites or kiosks to those of corporate donors.
But critics say the Centennial Initiative may actually worsen the growing backlog of deferred maintenance and skew priorities toward questionable projects pushed by donors.
Few if any of the projects selected in the first round of Centennial projects are on the park service maintenance backlog list, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER, a national association of workers in natural resources agencies.
Lands on Big Bend National Park in Texas are degraded from intensive land use, showing loss of native vegetation and over a foot of soil erosion. (Photo courtesy NPS)
Donor influence may lead to selection of questionable projects, says PEER Board member Frank Buono, a former NPS manager. "Waste water treatment plants are not sexy sells for recruiting prestige-minded private partners but our park system cannot continue to ignore sewage and its other housekeeping needs," he said. "Subsisting on low hanging fruit is not a sustainable diet."
Many U.S. national parks need basic maintenance and restoration, according to the National Park Service, which says, "Park resources have been degraded through human activities before and after designation as a park unit by Congress. Many lands were logged, grazed or mined, leaving a legacy of weedy vegetation and eroded soils."
"Some park management, such as fire exclusion and emphasis on large mammals to enhance visitor experience, have lead to imbalances in park resources," the NPS says. "Park resources also experience continuous threats from alien species, pollution, and climate change."
The private partnership nature of the Centennial Initiative also raises the danger that special interests can demand customized projects that do not serve park needs in return for their donations.
PEER cites a proposed bike trail at Big Bend that will be designed to resemble a racecourse, to maximize thrill, precluding other users. Big Bend already has more than 200 miles of existing trails, yet none of the existing trails will be used. Even with an International Mountain Biking Association "partnership," NPS would still have to produce $60,000 as its share of new trail construction, and additional sums for future maintenance.
"The vast majority of the Centennial projects are worthy," Buono added. "The danger, however, is that unless priorities are identified free from donor involvement the parks could become a partnership pinata."
At the summit, International Paper, the National Park Foundation and the National Recycling Coalition today announced a new pilot program to evaluate ways to limit the impact of foodservice products in America's national parks.
The study, funded in part by a donation of up to $1 million by International Paper, IP, will start in the summer of 2008 and is aimed at moving toward zero waste across the park system by identifying best practices in foodservice waste reduction that can be transferred to national parks throughout the country.
Food concession Glacier National Park (Photo credit unknown)
"At International Paper, we have already celebrated our first centennial of environmental stewardship, and now we're looking forward to helping the National Park System celebrate theirs," said John Faraci, IP chairman and chief executive officer and National Park Foundation board member. "It's an exciting opportunity, but one where each of us must be prepared, right now, to provide strong support for the challenges the park system will face going forward."
Through an agreement with the National Park Foundation, International Paper will produce a customized cup for use by parks, concessionaires and others. The cup, International Paper's fully compostable, recyclable "ecotainer," will display printed messages that will raise awareness about the National Park Centennial in 2016 and educate the public about conservation and environmental stewardship.
International Paper will donate a penny for each commemorative cup sold, up to $1 million, back to the National Park Foundation to help fund a joint effort between IP, the National Park Foundation and the National Recycling Coalition to evaluate foodservice waste management practices and educate employees, concessionaires and visitors about ways to reduce waste in the parks.
"Becoming a zero waste society means we each have a role to play, from the thoughtful design of a package to simple systems that take the package back to its basic element," said Kate Krebs, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition. "What better place to demonstrate zero waste than our national parks, where packaging can become a rich compost that can nurture the flora and fauna of our parks."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.
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