Park-Barrel Politics

A national park or historic site is sort of like pornography--you may not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it. The thundering falls of Yosemite, for instance. The richly colored chasms of the Grand Canyon. The family estate of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The rusting rolling stock of a rail yard called Steamtown, in Scranton, Pa., where nothing of any significance to the development of the nation's rail system ever took place.

Whoa. For most of the 74 years since the National Park Service was created, there was no question that the wilderness areas and historic sites named to the national systems had a significance that other babbling brooks or old houses didn't. No longer. Savvy members of Congress have discovered that Park Service money can be used to promote economic renewal in their districts. Through the efforts of Rep. Joseph McDade, for instance, Steamtown was designated a National Historic Site and has received $43.6 million since 1986; Austin Burke, president of the Scranton Chamber of Commerce, expects that, once the site is completed in 1994, the area will attract between 400.000 and 500.000 visitors a year. "It's a major economic boost, an impetus for urban development," he says.

Park barrel is nothing new. Political clout, more than inherent merit, was responsible for Fort Stanwix in Rome, N.Y., a fabrication of a Revolutionary War fort, being designated a national monument in 1935. But until lately, nominations for battlefield sites, monuments, seashores and the other 13 categories within the national park system have had to be formally reviewed by a Park Service panel that included historians, scientists and other scholars. Congress, whose committees overseeing the Interior Department have the power to authorize new sites and appropriate money to run them, took this evaluation seriously. The service, though, has not proposed a new designation in more than a decade: the Reagan administration, opposed to spending money to open new sites, disbanded the panel that evaluated nominees. That left the responsibility entirely to Congress. As a result, park-barreling is more open and more egregious than ever. Says one official who asked for anonymity, "Pork used to come with a pretense of national significance or recreational value, but now people are so shameless they don't even bother to put up that facade."

As a result, some 20 sites of dubious national significance have benefited from recent congressional largesse. Among the zircons in the Park Service crown:

The Keith-Albee Theater in Huntington, W.Va., which got its $4.5 million with nary a congressional hearing, thanks to Sen. Robert Byrd. The theater's claim to fame is that it's the largest, most ornate, most unusual in the state, according to a local booster magazine. (It now serves as a four-screen multiplex.)

Wilson Lake, a Corps of Engineers project outside Wilson, Kans., which got $125,000 for a feasibility study that may lead to its being designated a national recreation area. Although Sen. Robert Dole is not on the appropriations committee for the Park Service, "they took care of him anyway," says one Hill staffer. Even some locals were amused; one reporter called it "the nation's most significant mudhole."

The former home of President McKinley's in-laws, in the Canton, Ohio, district of Rep. Ralph Regula, ranking Republican on the Interior Department appropriations subcommittee. The Feds will spend more than $1 million in the two years it takes to acquire it.

The Charles Pinckney Mansion, named after the South Carolinian who wrote part of the Constitution, which was named a National Historic Site in 1988, thanks to Sen. Ernest Hollings. Unfortunately, not only did Pinckney never live in the building, but it was built long after he died.

A visitors' center for Lawrence Welk's old home in Strasburg, N.D., got funded as part of the Agriculture Department's program to help impoverished farm towns. It's not in the park system yet, but is a likely candidate for transfer once the town finishes its tourism master plan.

The critics' favorite target--partly because of large amounts of money involved--is Steamtown. The project is a product of the work of local boosters and rail buffs who acquired engines and cars (some Canadian) from a collection in Vermont. The rolling stock was shipped to the abandoned turn-of-the-century rail yard in Scranton. Representative McDade managed to get Steamtown designated a National Historic Site in 1986, and the federal funds started steaming in. The chamber of commerce's Burke lauds Steamtown as "a reminder of how hard people worked at the turn of the century and a reason to celebrate our heritage." Rail experts have another view. In the current issue of the journal American Heritage of Invention and Technology, John White, recently retired as the Smithsonian Institution's curator for transportation, calls the stock "a third-rate collection in a place to which it had no relevance . . . establishing a big railroad museum run by the National Park Service would have been fine, provided that some effort had been made to evaluate all the possible sites. None was, yet Congress just keeps dumping more money into it." Paul Pritchard, president of the private National Parks and Conservation Association, sees Steamtown as emblematic: "The Park Service is the new dumping ground, the place where Congress puts things that are not wanted and not needed."

In the zero-sum federal budget game, other parks projects are suffering even as the Steamtowns are raking in taxpayer money. Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, site of the first Continental Congress and of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, is closing nine buildings due to lack of funds. Some employees at Channel Islands National Historical Park, a wonder of natural beauty off the Santa Barbaracoast, are living in transoceanic cargo crates; there is no money for housing. Yellowstone, Glacier and other crownjewels of the national park system are slashing hours, staff and programs. Park Service pay is so low that at Yosemite and some other parks, employees need food stamps and are defecting to state parks; by this summer the seasonal rangers who guide visitors may be as extinct as the dodo. "Everyone likes to cut a ribbon on a new facility," laments Park Service Director James Ridenour, "but when it comes time to replace a sewer system nobody signs on. "

Mill town: At bottom, the problem here is one of honesty in labeling. No one doubts the virtue of helping distressed communities get back on to sound economic footing. But why call it historic preservation? Lowell, Mass., a former mill town, got a huge boost when it was designated a National Historical Park in 1978, and the Park Service, along with the state and city, began restoring it as a sort of 19th-century New England Williamsburg. Other cities in the northeast hope to go the Lowell route. But almost every town in the nation has a bit of Americana that, to someone somewhere (usually right there) deserves special recognition and federal largesse. The debate is whether, as the purists wish, we should stop cheapening the "national" designation. Pragmatists counter that Congress just reflects what the public wants, and sometimes that means pushing the national park system into the tourism and economic-development business.

Are there any reforms in sight? Director Ridenour intends to sift through the system for places that should be turned over to states or municipalities or even private enterprise. Rep. Bruce Vento of Minnesota, who heads the subcommittee that authorizes the naming of new national sites but has no power to appropriate money for the designation, will reintroduce a bill giving the Park Service greater autonomy and perhaps more say in what is--and is not--added to the system. But no one holds out much hope for restoring meaning to the system any time soon. Too many pols want their favorite places designated a national something or other. The only hope may lie in ridicule. Designate history's first strip mine as Byrdland, W.Va. Or the first prairie welfare office as On the Dole, Kans. Or, better yet, just change the name of Capitol Hill to Steamtown, U.S.A.