January 28, 1995 in City

Funding The Park System Is No Picnic

Joel Hefley Special To The Washi
 

Some time ago, Congress fell into the habit of haphazardly creating more national parks than it was willing or able to support. The chairman of the resources subcommittee on parks, forests and public lands, Jim Hansen of Utah, recently recalled that in 1976, former congressman John Seiberling vowed to create “a park a month” and often delivered on that promise.

Though the pace has slackened somewhat, the park glut and current federal budget constraints have combined to create a $1 billion to $2 billion backlog in land acquisitions, a $6 billion shortfall in construction and a $400 million to $800 million deficit in operations and maintenance funds. So serious is this backlog that some of the newer sites have yet to receive operating funds. In fact, the Missouri National Recreation River received no operating funds for 14 years after its creation in 1978.

We have had a leaky roof and failing electrical system at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, poor road conditions along the scenic Skyline Drive in Virginia and park rangers living in what National Park Service (NPS) Director Roger Kennedy termed “Third-World conditions.”

Still, Congress continues to designate park sites without national merit. Elsewhere, designations appear more linked to urban economic development and political clout than the preservation of the natural and cultural fabric of America.

For example, over the past decade, the NPS has spent close to $80 million on Steamtown National Historical Park in Scranton, Pa. The site has little significance to American railroad development. Further, many of the park’s artifacts are Canadian in origin and were moved from around New England.

Three Washington-area commuter routes are under the aegis of the Park Service although no one can provide a plausible reason why. And there is Wolf Trap, a successful Virginia outdoor amphitheater which was deeded to the Park Service by the late heiress Kathleen Shouse.

Also, several former state parks, such as the Sandy Hook National Recreation Area in New Jersey, have bowed to pressures for increased visitation. As a result this once small, quiet park is being destroyed, and a bird native to the area is heading for the endangered list. Something must be done.

Earlier this month, I reintroduced legislation - the National Park System Reform Act - which gives the NPS one year to develop a plan to carry the Park Service in the next century. The plan must include goals and objectives, an inventory of parks, the criteria for selection of sites for national park designation and a numerical list of priorities for both urban and non-urban parks.

The NPS will need to review its holdings, evaluate its historical and natural significance and offer alternative forms of management for those parks that don’t meet its mission. If the Park Service fails to carry out this mission within one year, a blue-ribbon panel, similar to the military base closure commission, will be appointed by Congress for a two-year period to develop its own report.

One could label this a park closing bill, but that would ignore the positive aspects of legislation which would ensure a National Park System whose holdings are meaningful - the result of a careful screening procedure, not political clout. In short, it would ensure that taxpayers get their money’s worth out of the park system.

My legislation is not an attempt to take an ax to this agency. The contents of the bill owe much to my Democratic cosponsor, Rep. Bruce Vento of Minnesota, and the Park Service. It is a truly bipartisan solution to a process that has gotten out of hand in Congress.

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The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Joel Hefley Special to The Washington Post


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