Parks Suffer Under Bush, Conservationists Say

By J.R. Pegg

June 11, 2003 (ENS) - The Bush administration is failing to look after the national parks and its policies are putting further stress on the understaffed and underfunded National Park Service, conservationists say. In a detailed analysis released today, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) gives the Bush administration a D- in a report card that measures its performance in protecting and managing the nation's 388 national parks.

The report criticizes the administration for a slew of direct and indirect actions that NPCA says represent a widespread assault on the national parks and undermine President George W. Bush's repeated pledge to safeguard many of the nation's most treasured places.

Although many of the problems that plague the national parks are the product of years of underfunding and mismanagement, the administration is engaged in policies that "exploit parklands for the benefit of special interests," according to NPCA President Thomas Kiernan.

"The president made strong commitments to the American people about protecting our national parks, and the administration has failed to keep them to date," Kiernan said.

NPCA report card finds it is the administration's overall policies, rather than its direct oversight of the parks, that has earned it a failing grade.

"It is not fair to say the administration has purposely gone out to harm the parks, but the result of several major policy initiatives has been to greatly damage the parks," explained Ron Tipton, senior vice president of NPCA. glacier

Glacier National Park preserves more than 1,000,000 acres of forests, alpine meadows, and lakes, and is home to more than 70 species of mammals and 260 species of birds. (Photo courtesy NPCA)
Tipton says there are several individual decisions by the Bush administration that have been beneficial to a few individual parks, but these actions are overwhelmed by the greater context of administration policies.

In particular, NPCA believes the national parks are suffering from the administration's aggressive approach to reducing the federal workforce, its failure to aggressively enforce the Clean Air Act and its willingness to cede authority over federal lands to local interests.

NPCA graded the administration on five categories: protection of resources such as air quality and wildlife; visitor experience; funding; park administration and management; and growth of the park system.

For its protection of park resources, NPCA gave the Bush administration an F, in particular for its air pollution plan, known as Clear Skies. Air quality is a major problem for many national parks and NPCA says Clear Skies would increase air pollution problems for parks such as Shenandoah, Sequoia/Kings Canyon and the Great Smokey Mountains.

In addition, the organization criticizes the administration for permitting the construction of new power plants outside several national parks without strict pollution controls and for not fully enforcing existing air pollution standards under the Clean Air Act.

Another factor in the failing grade for the protection of park resources is the administration's use of Revised Statute 2477 - a 19th century mining law - to settle right of way claims across federal lands. NPCA and many other conservationists believe the administration's interpretation of this law could allow road construction and other development on federal lands, including national parks.

The administration's decision to allow snowmobiles within Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks prompted NPCA to give it a failing grade for visitor experience. bushforest

President George W. Bush believes privatizing more of the federal workforce would help cut costs. (Photo courtesy the White House)
This decision is "a consequence" of favoring local interests over the national interests that should be reflected in policy for the national parks, Tipton said.

In addition, NPCA says the administration has been slow to develop regulations to limit the adverse effects of low flying commercial overflights of national parks and has required Park officials to continue to allow public use of personal watercraft at Cape Lookout and Gulf Island national seashores.

The issue of funding for the national parks has been a source of considerable debate, but here the administration fared a bit better in NPCA's view.

Although the President has not fulfilled a campaign promise to fully fund the $4.9 billion maintenance backlog, NPCA gives the administration credit for requesting modest increases for both Park Service maintenance/construction and for the agency's operating budget.

"The President has not done anywhere near what he said he intended to, but they have proposed some modest increases for the backlog and the operations," Tipton said. "The administration has probably done a little better than Clinton on maintenance, but a little worse on funding for operations."

It is difficult to separate out exactly how much more money has been requested by the administration to tackle the maintenance backlog, but Tipton estimates it is around $200 million. The scope of the task is considerable - the $4.9 billion in maintenance backlog is twice the total budget of the Park Service.

National Park Service spokeswoman Elaine Sevy told ENS that the agency, under direction of the Bush administration, is currently reassessing the vital maintenance needs within each national park.

"The maintenance backlog has been building for a long, long time, but I believe the administration is truly committed to addressing it," said Sevy, a 14 year veteran of the Park Service.

Sevy acknowledged that funding is tight for the agency, but says "we are part of a shrinking pot of discretionary funding."

In addition to the $4.9 billion in maintenance backlog, the Park Service is in dire need of increased operating funds.

On average, U.S. national parks are operating with only two-thirds of the needed funding, according to the NPCA.

Funding across the government is tight, Tipton conceded, but the administration could show strong support for the parks by increasing the Park Service operations budget by the $178 million many believe it needs just to effectively manage and operate the national parks.

The report also praises the administration for proposing increases to the Park Service's Natural Resource Challenge, a new program designed to boost science in the national parks. smokies

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is often not this visible, due to severe air pollution from many miles away. (Photo courtesy NPCA)
A grade of D for the administration and management of the national parks is largely the result of the administration's plan to assess the viability of outsourcing 850,000 jobs across the federal government.

Under this plan, the administration has ordered the Park Service to study the possible benefits of privatizing some 1,700 agency jobs, a figure administration officials have used to try and quell fears about its privatization plan.

But Tipton and others believe the administration has its eye on outsourcing a third of the Park Service work force.

Although NPCA believes there is a role for outsourcing, this kind of sweeping change would undermine the mission driven character of the workforce and be a "disaster" for the national parks.

"It is a huge policy decision and will have big impacts," Tipton said. "It is a really dumb idea."

The privatization initiative is already impacting the Park Service, as funds have been diverted from maintenance projects to pay for the studies, estimated to cost a total of $2.5 million to $3 million.

The Bush administration has not provided additional funds for these studies, nor for the costs of Homeland Security.

Each day the nation is under the Homeland's Code Orange alert, the agency must pay an additional $66,500 in security costs, funds that must be siphoned off from elsewhere in the agency's budget. padredunes

The Bush administration's decision to allow new oil drilling within Padre Island National Seashore on the Texas Gulf Coast has outraged conservationists. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
For its policies on expansion of the national parks system, the administration earned an F from NPCA, both for discouraging Park Service staff from initiating studies of potential new park units and for sending Congress a series of negative recommendations on those studies mandated by U.S. legislators.

The argument that the Park Service is struggling to maintain the existing 388 parks should not be accepted as the lone rationale for not adding other parks into the system, Tipton said.

"These sites are not going to sit around and wait for a time when there is money," he explained. "Often times it is now or not at all. Their view is very short sighted.

NPCA, which gave the Bush administration a D in 2001 for its record on national parks, believes there is still time for a reversal in fortune. The organization urges the administration to fully fund the national parks, strengthen clean air protections, eliminate the loophole allowing new road claims, enforce the snowmobile ban at Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and exempt the Park Service from the new privatization initiative.

"There is time for the administration to earn a better grade by improving its policies on our national parks," Kiernan said. "Until then, the 300 million people who visit the parks annually will not have the experiences they deserve."

To access NPCA's report card click here.