Parks Get Greener

America's overused and underfunded National Parks got a shot of good news this week with the government's announcement of an ambitious new plan to use a combination of federal dollars and private funds to upgrade the parks in time for the Park Service's 100th Anniversary in 2016. The parks are eager for the extra money, which would fund 3,000 new seasonal employees and increase the operating budget of most parks by an average of 14 percent. The centennial initiative includes $100 million annually from Congress, as well as a related matching program, the first of its kind for the Park Service, that will appropriate up to another $100 million to match public donations. The Bush administration projects that the public-private partnership will raise a total $3 billion for the parks by the 2016 centennial.

At an event announcing the project in California's Yosemite National Park on Thursday, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said the government had already lined up more than $300 million in commitments from private donors and corporations, with most of the money expected to go toward restoring park grounds, visitor service centers and other discretionary projects. The Senate Subcommittee on National Parks will vote on the plan next week.

Bob Hansen, president of the Yosemite Fund, says the money will reduce environmental impacts and increase programming for visitors to America's 391 national parks. Still, environmental groups stress that, for greatest impact, the funding should continue past the program's 2016 end date. "The most important part of this plan is that it's not a one-time deal," says Ron Tipton, senior vice president of the National Park Conservation Association. An extra $220 million in additional funding spread across the whole system doesn't cover the mass transformation some parks need to rescue them from further degradation like logging and loss of animal habitat, Tipton says.

George W. Bush pumped the parks heavily in his 2000 campaign, when he promised to adequately fund the entire system. But critics say he's been no Teddy Roosevelt, who established five national parks and proclaimed in 1906 the environment to be "a vivid metaphor for all of the country's concerns" during his presidency. By contrast, when President Bush stood beside the towering sequoia trees at California's Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in 2001, he proclaimed his love for nature before introducing the Healthy Forest Initiative that increased specialized logging to cut down on forest fires. Environmental groups are also skeptical about Kempthorne. During his term as governor of Idaho, from 1999 to 2006, toxic air emissions increased by two percent even as the national average dropped 10. He also came under fire for an opposition vote to stop road-building in national forests. Kempthorne says he has always been a strong environmental supporter.

Still, park supporters applaud the latest effort. Boosting park funding for most of the next decade is not an empty gesture; Kempthorne would pass the program to the next administration in early 2009, a fact that would put pressure on the next president to keep the cash coming. But don't look for a sudden splurge of new environmental proposals in Bush's final year. "We're going to focus on the parks for now," says Kempthorne.