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US Park Service Cuts Imperils Infrastructure

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release March 14, 2006
http://www.btlonline.org

Bush Administration Budget Cuts Targeting U.S. Park Service Imperils Infrastructure

- Interview with Alexander Brash, of the National Parks Conservation Association, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Listen in RealAudio:
http://www.btlonline.org/brash031706.ram

The U.S. National Park Service was the first government agency of its kind in the world. The service manages 348 sites, from Denali National Park in Alaska to historic buildings in the northeast, including the Freedom Trail and the Underground Railroad. The system currently has a $600 million shortfall, and faces a $100 million funding cut in President Bush's proposed budget that will exacerbate the department's crisis.

Critics maintain that the White House funding cuts may well be designed to create pressure for increased commercialization, exploitation and privatization of services within the park system.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Alexander Brash, the northeast regional staff person for the National Parks Conservation Association, a 90-year-old nonprofit organization independent of the U.S. government. Its mandate is to protect and enhance the national parks. Brash explains how the funding crisis has affected the whole system, and what it may mean for America's national park system if the situation is not reversed.

ALEXANDER BRASH: Since President Bush came in and made a large pledge to help address the backlog of repair work and maintenance in our national parks; at best, one might consider the funding has been flat, and in fact, in real dollars, the funding has been declining over years. And we believe, of course, this is tragic. There’s both the near- and long-term gaps this creates. One example is Gateway National Park here in New York that covers three counties ? Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island ? and stretches down to Sandy Hook, N.J. Gateway was created in the 1970s. It was supposed to be a large recreational area for the 22 million regional residents, and ultimately has never really been funded since then. One can go today and still see 1940s Quonset huts falling down. Neither the dream of turning it into a great recreational playground been realized, nor has the alternative scenario been moved forward, which is to turn it into a beautiful natural park heralding New York harbor. Throughout the nation, this is true in most parks, where the $600 million backlog means roofs are falling down, boardwalks aren’t repaired, restrooms aren’t open, roads aren’t fixed, and so forth.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Just to clarify, people always think of the national parks as the big ones out west, and that goes along with the idea that the main mission of the National Park Service is to preserve our natural heritage. Is that right?

ALEXANDER BRASH: To be very clear, the main mission of the National Park Service is to preserve both our natural and historical heritage. For instance, while there are the great iconic parks, such as Yellowstone or Yosemite, which dominate, I think, people’s notion of what the Park Service is, here, for example, in the Northeast, there are roughly 40 parks, and of those, only three or four have large natural landscapes. Most of the other units such as Alexander Hamilton’s house --which is up at 140th Street in northern Manhattan -- the only historic site set aside for founding father Alexander Hamilton, is falling down as we speak. You have Weir Farm, which is dedicated to Weir, who is one of the early American impressionist artists, and is up in Ridgefield, Conn. And, as I said, throughout the Northeast there are roughly 30-plus other sites that are simply historic houses, or freedom trails like through Boston; the USS Constitution -- Old Ironsides as we know it; you have the Statue of Liberty. There are a whole bunch of different sites. So the NPS is really entrusted with both the natural and historical heritage of the nation. And course historical structures are as difficult to maintain as large natural landscapes.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Congressman Richard Pombo from California has proposed some pretty radical “solutions” to the underfunding of the parks, which is to sell some off and/or allow commercial interests to sponsor them. Can you explain what’s going on and what this means for the parks, these proposals?

ALEXANDER BRASH: I think Richard Pombo has had several novel attempts to try to get at the national park system. The most egregious one is his notion of selling off park units that don’t have a certain number of visits during the year, and of course what that means once one translates that to the bigger picture is either selling off units which are so underfunded they’ve been unable to attract people, or the other ones that come up, of course are some large tracts up in Alaska which are very difficult to get to but which hold some of the nation’s greatest natural jewels. So either of these scenarios is absolutely absurd, but we believe that people are coming around to Pombo’s game, and I think most of Congress is beginning to drum him out of business.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I know he’s facing what might be a tough re-election campaign, but just focusing on your last statement, that Congress might be coming to realize that Pombo doesn’t necessarily have the best answers for the NPS, so is that no longer such a threat, of selling it off in pieces, and the main threat now is just the lack of funding in general?

ALEXANDER BRASH: I think the greatest danger out of Pombo’s efforts has not been that Pombo’s particular plans themselves are a threat. What he’s done is try to move the bar so people think, oh, we’ll do something in the middle and that’s better, and the problem is that something in the middle is so dramatically underfunding the national parks. And as that happens, you can’t go back and fix something that’s been unalterably ruined. You can’t go back in and recreate Old Ironsides if she sinks to the bottom of Boston Harbor. You can’t go back in and recreate the bridge that the Minutemen launched America from in Concord. You can’t go back and replace pictures at Weir Farm that have been ruined by a leaky roof. And that, honestly, is the real danger, because the National Park System holds those American icons -- both natural and cultural -- which are not just special for what they are by themselves, but all these icons are special because they bring to a broad array of Americans the different trails we have all walked to get here and to forge our nation. And if you lose that cognizance of a nation, we will lose the bonds that tie us together.

Call the National Parks Conservation Association at (212) 454-3311 or visit their website at http://www.npca.org

**********

Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 40 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending March 10, 2006. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.

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