National parks budget mostly a shell game
March 2, 2007
By Robert Mutch
Given the glowing reviews of President Bush’s proposed 2008 budget for national parks in a Feb. 21 Register-Guard editorial and elsewhere, and anticipating National Park Service Secretary Mary Bomar’s visit to Capitol Hill to sell this plan, we should carefully scrutinize the budget first and see what facts we can glean from it.
Of the proposed $230 million “increase” in park operations, $211 million is actually at the expense of other national park programs. The old shell game is done today with a spreadsheet. A closer look shows that maintenance and construction, historic preservation, state assistance and land acquisition will be reduced; the budget moves money around rather than increasing overall benefits.
Our second concern is a proposal that would match potential private contributions with tax dollars, dollar for dollar, up to $100 million a year for 10 years. This drastically alters the way we have funded our national parks for more than 100 years.
This plan forces the park manager into the role of panhandler.
With a mandate to reach the annual goal of $100 million in donations, managers may seek donations from sources beyond the appropriate philanthropic ones. This could open the door to less altruistic investors in our national parks. Over time, this could result in parks being far less public and far more private.
Look what has happened to public television, which now replaces vanishing government funding with commercials. So, too, might sponsors advertise themselves in the parks.
These donors also might feel they have the right to dictate how parks are to be maintained and operated. Philanthropy quickly could turn into philandering.
The long and proud tradition of true philanthropy in national parks should always be considered an added value, above the necessary core level of publicly funded service and protection in our national parks. Voluntary contributions should never be construed as a replacement for federal support.
Requiring the National Park Service to find private sector funds to support basic capital improvements and maintenance also could skew which projects get done. There likely will be greater emphasis on “show me” projects to honor private investors – such as new visitor centers or rehabilitation of prominent historic sites, rather than meeting dire park infrastructure needs, such as utilities or roads.
In our analysis, the overall increase in “new” money for the national parks is only 2 percent above 2006 levels. By contrast, the 2007 cost of living adjustment for Social Security was 3.3 percent.
William Steel dedicated much of his life to getting Crater Lake established as a national park, ensuring it was protected from special interests and helping visitors to appreciate its extraordinary beauty. Many others following in his footsteps have given much – educators, scientists and concerned citizens.
Let us in turn follow in their footsteps and ensure that Crater Lake remains our park for generations to come.
Robert Mutch (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Eugene is executive director of the Crater Lake Institute. Ron Mastrogiuseppe of Agency Lake, president of the institute, and Owen Hoffman of Tennessee, a member of the institute board, helped prepare this essay. The Crater Lake Institute’s Web site is at www.craterlakeinstitute.com.