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THE FEDERAL BUDGET

Bush's Parks Plan Worries Watchdog Group

Environment: Most of the $4.9 billion would go to construction and road building projects, rather than to preserve natural resources and wildlife.

March 01, 2001|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Bush is heralding his $4.9-billion plan to fix up the national parks, but the parks' chief watchdogs Wednesday said they are alarmed that Bush would mostly pave roads and refurbish buildings, rather than preserve natural and cultural treasures.

Bush's five-year plan calls for spending $2.7 billion to improve and repair roads and the remaining $2.2 billion for non-road-related improvements ranging from fixing aging sewer systems in the older parks to weeding out non-indigenous plants from wilderness habitats.

Since the presidential campaign, the National Parks Conservation Assn. has been lobbying the Bush team about a new vision for funding the parks that focuses on protecting and managing the wilderness and wildlife.

The new administration gave the group hope that it would be the one big environmental winner in the Bush presidency. Instead, Ron Tipton, the conservation association's vice president, said: "This is sure the wrong direction to go. The plan spends 98% on roads and buildings and only 2% on birds and bunnies."

As with many of the initiatives Bush outlined in his nationally televised speech Tuesday to appeal to a wide range of Americans, this one turns out to be less expansive in its details.

For example, an allotment of $2.7 million for roads will come from the highly competitive Transportation Equity Act, which was passed in 1998 and provides $217 billion in federal highway and transportation funding over a six-year period. The measure already provides $165 million a year to the park system and is not up for renewal until 2004.

In fiscal 2002, the Bush plan translates into an increase of 30%, to $440 million in funding for maintenance and construction projects and infrastructure improvements and $20 million for protecting animals and natural resources.

But environmental groups say the proposal fails to provide enough money to fulfill the parks' most basic mandate--to preserve wilderness areas and the plants and animals there.

The national parks funding announcement was an exercise in frustration for one of the rare environmental organizations that was willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt.

Most green groups already have started attacking the new administration as an enemy to wildlife and wilderness. En masse, the environmental community condemned Bush's pick to head the Interior Department, Gale A. Norton. But the parks conservation group--an 81-year-old mainstream advocacy group with a bipartisan membership of 460,000--held its tongue.

Meanwhile, its senior people were granted meetings with high-ranking officials of the Bush transition team and then the new administration, including being ushered into the White House to pitch their vision for Bush's parks initiative.

The association's hopes hinged on a Bush campaign pledge to eliminate not only the maintenance but also the resource protection backlog for the parks. It was a rare environment-friendly promise in a campaign that largely was silent on the issue.

But in the weeks since the administration took power, the group has heard disturbing news.

"We're profoundly concerned that the funding will just go to build more roads and buildings," association president Tom Kiernan said. "The parks were not founded as places to build roads but to protect natural and historic treasures."

The group is not giving up.

"Bush is making parks a priority and we have to give him credit for that," Tipton said. "We are disappointed. But this is the first inning of a nine-inning game."

The association now will turn its attention to members of Congress, who have ultimate control over the federal purse strings. "The fact that they're asking for a lot of money gives us a lot of leverage with Congress," Tipton said.

Gaining any increase in Bush's budget is unusual for an environmental program. His blueprint cuts the Environmental Protection Agency's funding by $500 million, to $7.3 billion next year and the Interior Department by $400 million, to $9.8 billion.

The parks group is not suggesting that there be no funding for fixing roads and restoring dilapidated buildings, old sewer systems and other services that enable visitors to enjoy the parks.

"There are times and places where road maintenance can improve resource protection and visitor experiences," Kiernan said.

For instance, the one main road leading into Alaska's Denali National Park and Preserve is in such bad repair that if it is not improved there is a danger to visitors, the association said. If it deteriorates further, another road may have to be built, paving more of the wilderness.

For three summers, the parks conservation group has worked with 27 of the nation's 384 national parks to develop business plans. The clear message from this effort was that the parks were in dire need of more resources to study and protect their wild and cultural treasures.

The National Park Service quarrels with the notion that it would ignore natural treasures when spending any new money.

David Barna, a spokesman for the service, said the Bush administration will have to put more money into studying wildlife and plants in the parks and ensuring their protection than the proposed budget indicates.

Often, Barna said, fixing the infrastructure is essential to protecting the animals that live in the parks. For example, replacing Yellowstone's aging sewer systems--which have leaked raw sewage into the nation's oldest park's pristine waterways--preserves the habitat for wildlife.

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