A lemon-yellow train station, handsomely restored, brightens this gray gorge like a cardinal in snow. But why did the National Park Service spend $2.5 million turning a railroad station into a visitor center for a town with a population of eight?
The compelling reason - silver-haired Sen. Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia - glides past on Amtrak’s Cardinal Limited from time to time, heading to and from his home in Sophia, a few miles south.
Byrd, while chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, added money for the station’s restoration to the Park Service’s budget. The Park Service couldn’t say no. It’s a play oft repeated since 1978, when Byrd slipped the entire 52-mile-long New River Gorge, in which Thurmond sits, into the Park Service system, unwanted.
Byrd’s brashness isn’t surprising; he’s legendary for delivering federal money to West Virginia. What’s surprising is the number of other lawmakers - including Republicans otherwise intent on cutting federal spending - who, like him, are turning the National Park Service into their personal pork barrel.
According to Roger Kennedy, the agency’s recently retired director, more money is spent these days on “congressionally identified” initiatives than on projects recommended by the Park Service. In the two accounts where discretion is greatest - money to buy park land and money to build in parks - Kennedy estimates the proportion added by lawmakers is “higher than in the Pentagon’s” budget, another favorite magnet for hometown projects. Likely to be cheated in the process are parks in states or congressional districts without political clout. By definition, most windfalls go to lawmakers who have power over the Park Service’s purse. For example, in budgets in the last four years:< Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that sets Park Service spending, has added nearly $20 million to buy and build on park land in the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area adjacent to his district. That’s equal to what the 19 federal parks in New England got in the same time period.
Pennsylvania Rep. Joseph McDade, the committee’s ranking Republican, garnered $8.3 million in land acquisition and construction money for the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in his district. The park, site of the Park Service’s infamous $333,000 outhouse, received more money for new buildings and trails than Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier and all the other national parks in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana combined.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., scored $16.3 million for Park Service construction projects along Mississippi’s Natchez Trace. That’s four times what the entire Upper Midwest (Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota) got.
Alaska probably fares best of all. It’s home to three powerful Republicans: Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee; Frank Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee that approves Park Service projects, and Don Young, chairman of the House Resources Committee that does the same.
“It’s a fortunate time for Alaska,” ventured John Raffetto, Stevens’ spokesman on the Appropriations Committee. How fortunate? So fortunate that the Park Service this year will be helping to design a $10 million civic and convention center for Seward, Alaska, population 2,990. The Park and Forest Services, slated to have offices and visitor facilities in the new facility, would pay four-fifths of the cost.
Striking the deal was almost a family affair. Seward’s lobbyists, according to federal records, were a former aide to Rep. Young, two former Stevens aides, and Stevens’ son Ben.
The younger Stevens could not be reached for comment. His lobbying duties were limited to showing project boosters from Seward around Capitol Hill, according to spokesman Raffetto, who said Ben Stevens did not lobby his father. Although it happens rarely, lobbying of lawmakers by family members is not prohibited by Congress’ ethics rules.
While adding hundreds of millions of dollars for their own favored projects since 1994, lawmakers haven’t been so kind to the Park Service. They’ve trimmed, on average, about a third of the money for construction and land-buying initiatives that the Park Service proposed.
Rep. Regula, chairman of the Interior Appropriations subcommittee, sees nothing wrong with that. “We’re the policy makers,” Regula said in a telephone interview. “There’s nothing in the Constitution that says that a project requested by the administration is legitimate and a project recommended by a member is not.”
“I try to be fair,” Regula continued. The 1998 Park Service budget, he said, includes some projects “that are not in districts of members of the Appropriations Committee or even the Natural Resources Committee.”
By Washington standards, the sums involved aren’t huge: The Park Service will get about $1.2 billion from Congress this year, most of it for visitor services, maintenance and salaries. What gets haggled over is about $350 million in accounts to buy park land and build new facilities.
Many Park Service officials, including James Ridenour, Park Service director during the Bush administration, argue Congress skimps on such vital but unsexy responsibilities as maintenance. Instead, Ridenour said, lawmakers stuff the land-acquisition and construction accounts with more new parks, heritage centers, recreation areas, national rivers, national battlefields and other obligations than can be developed intelligently.
These new obligations amount to “thinning the blood” of the Park Service, according to Ridenour, because they make it harder to find the money to adequately maintain what he terms the “crown jewels” of the system - parks such as Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Zion and Yellowstone. When lawmakers rather than professionals control Park Service decisions, Ridenour added, priorities get confused and national interests often lose to parochial, constituent interests.
The Old Faithful area of Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, for example, suffers from a leaky, overwhelmed World War II-era sewage treatment plant. That’s quite a problem amid geysers. But the two Wyoming delegation lawmakers on park-related committees - Sen. Craig Thomas and Rep. Barbara Cubin, both Republicans - have only six years in Congress between them. So Yellowstone’s problems have not become a high priority on Capitol Hill.
By contrast, Corinth, Miss., doesn’t even have a national park. But Corinth is getting Park Service construction money this year, thanks to Senate Majority Leader Lott. It’s to build a multimillion-dollar Civil War “interpretive center” to be attached to the Shiloh National Military Park. That’s a pretty distant attachment: Shiloh lies 20 miles north of Corinth, in Tennessee.
Especially popular among lawmakers - and their constituents, particularly boosters of local tourism - are new park visitor centers. West Virginia’s New River Gorge area already has four, including a lodge-like $8 million facility alongside I-64 at Fayetteville. Two more are in the works.
Not everyone is so lucky. Superintendents at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, for example, have vainly sought since 1982 money to build an expanded visitor center for tourists entering from North Carolina. The park has seven times more visitors than New River, according to the latest Park Service census. Influential lawmakers, on the other hand, can get a lot of money for pretty dubious projects. Steamtown National Historic Site - a restored rail yard in Scranton, Pa. - is a prime example. Rep. McDade has pumped more than $60 million into this hometown economic-redevelopment project.
Understandably, superintendents of National Park units in the districts of well-placed lawmakers court them ardently. Even aides to Sen. Byrd get invitations to rafting expeditions led down the New River by park rangers. The tradeoffs can get intricate. Byrd, for example, has come up with $6.3 million since 1991 to build trails in New River - and to relieve local unemployment. The park has gotten visitor centers and riverbank facilities for rafters - but at sites where local raft expedition companies told Byrd they wanted them. It’s gotten millions to buy park land - but one condition is that it support a West Virginia plan to build a new parkway through the park.
The favor-trading works both ways, of course. In a shoot-for-the-moon move, the Park Service in 1991 presented Byrd with plans to restore not just the railroad depot at Thurmond but the entire cluster of dilapidated buildings along the CSX tracks that once constituted the town’s main street. Byrd balked at the price tag - $34.9 million. He even insisted, according to former aide Charles Estes, on cutting back the outlay proposed for the depot’s restoration.
So there it stands, lemon yellow, an air-conditioned, elevator-equipped, two-story restored depot and seasonal Park Service visitor center. About 20,000 visitors a year, mostly whitewater rafters, make it to Thurmond, accessible by car only via a narrow, winding road with nine one-lane bridges. It’s an extravagant symbol of extravagance trimmed, this depot. It raises questions about what the National Park Service has become and who runs it.
Asked that last question, New River Gorge park superintendent Pete Hart’s face reddened. “I’m not touching that with a 10-foot pole,” he replied.