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'Park Barrel' Politics Seen as Redefining 75-Year-Old National System : Public lands: Much of the money allocated to the Park Service is going to new historic projects. Some have doubtful significance to U.S. heritage.

October 13, 1991|DAVID FOSTER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mention national parks and historic sites, and most people picture treasures of America's natural and cultural heritage: Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Washington Monument, the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa.

Now picture these recent additions:

* The Charles Pinckney Historic Site. This plantation house in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., honors one of the framers of the Constitution. Trouble is, Pinckney never lived in the house; it was built several years after he died.

* Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pa. Rail historians say this collection of old steam engines and cars, mostly from Canada, has little relevance to U.S. railroad history. Yet it has received more than $46 million from Congress since its designation in 1986.

What are these places--and many others of questionable significance--doing in the national park system?

The answer, some say, is that Congress has discovered "park barrel" politics.

Getting an old mansion or factory or farm placed in the national park system has become a favorite tool of communities seeking tourist dollars.

At the local level, nearly everyone benefits. Residents preserve a place of local pride and businesses get tourist trade, all at federal expense, while the politician who procures the project gets to brag about it election time.

National Park Service officials fear that a crush of new projects lacking national significance will drag down their already overburdened agency and dilute the integrity of the park system.

Park Service director James M. Ridenour calls it a "thinning of the blood."

"We have a national and international reputation," Ridenour said. "When you put up the park service logo--the arrowhead--people come to expect a certain quality."

The park system is best known for its 50 full-fledged parks--the "crown jewels" such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. But as the system observes its 75th anniversary this year, it has grown to 358 units, including battlefields, historic sites, monuments, lake shores, seashores, preserves and reserves.

"We're not doing an adequate job of taking care of our crown jewels," Ridenour said. "To see us further expand into areas of questionable national significance, while not taking care of areas that are significant, seems to me a foolish step to make."

Last year, Congress appropriated $271 million in construction funds for the Park Service, more than three times what the agency requested. This year, the agency asked for $106 million; the Senate is offering $193 million, and the House is offering $236 million.

Ordinarily, park managers would be overjoyed. The problem, however, is that funds often go to highly visible projects, such as newly designated historic sites or visitor centers, instead of more essential Park Service priorities--such as fixing sewage and water systems in the existing parks.

Some pin the blame on the Park Service. It used to have a committee of historians, scientists and others to review park proposals and give Congress suggestions each year. That way, the most qualified sites would get consideration.

The Ronald Reagan Administration was against expanding the park system and disbanded the study committee. The Park Service hasn't proposed a new park in 12 years and has fought all but a few proposals made by others.

"In the '80s we opposed everything," said Dennis Galvin, the service's associate director for planning and development. "Our formal testimony on the Hill has no credibility any more. We've lost control of the agenda."

Ridenour said he wants to make the Park Service a player again by pumping new life, and money, into the study committee. That plan is being reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget.

Ridenour couched his criticism in general terms to avoid offending powerful congressmen, but others were not so shy.

Steamtown is "the mother of all pork barrel," said David Simon, lobbyist for the National Parks and Conservation Assn. Ordinarily, the nonprofit group supports new parks. But Steamtown, designated in 1986 at the urging of Rep. Joseph M. McDade (R-Pa.) is no ordinary park, Simon said.

The rail yard lacks national significance (a Smithsonian Institution historian once called it "a third-rate collection in a place to which it had no relevance"), and its funds were added to the budget without a hearing, Simon said.

The Charles Pinckney Historic Site was purchased for $700,000 in federal funds in 1988, at the urging of Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.). The Park Service voiced few objections, in part because no one had studied the plan, said an agency official who requested anonymity.

Only this year did archeologists confirm that Pinckney's supposed homestead was built after he died. Congress appropriated $259,000 last year to fix up the site, a further $316,000 was requested this year, and officials said they are still two years away from opening it to the public. Using the parks agency has become a favorite way of paying for projects it may never administer, Park Service officials said.

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