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Lighthouse Is Beacon in Debate

Point Reyes project was cited as a model of park maintenance. But critics say huge backlog exists.

August 08, 2003|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE — This wind-blasted park and its charismatic 19th century lighthouse have become the unwitting centerpiece of a Bush administration public relations campaign to demonstrate how the president is tackling the U.S. Park Service's multibillion-dollar backlog of maintenance projects.

Point Reyes has been singled out by federal officials as a model for its efforts to repair and reduce the maintenance needs at the park. But environmental groups and some members of Congress have said the policy is disingenuous and will not reduce the $4.9-billion maintenance backlog.

Assistant Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett, who toured the park Thursday, said the critics are off base. She noted that the administration has increased parks' annual maintenance budget by 132%.

Scarlett said the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Park Service, did not yet have an idea of how many maintenance backlog projects exist or what they would cost. She praised President Bush for ordering the agency to inventory for the first time all of its facilities and assess their conditions. That inventory across nearly 400 parks is expected to be completed by the end of 2004.

"It's not sexy, not glamorous, but those are the fundamental tools we needed," Scarlett said. "No president has given the parks that much focus and attention and management tools to do the job. We are getting the darn job done."

In an online publication circulated last month to Park Service employees, Director Fran Mainella singled out Point Reyes to praise its completion of a long-planned project to repair the park's ailing lighthouse. The park, 40 miles north of San Francisco, was the focal point of a July 4 photo opportunity intended to unveil both the refurbished lighthouse and the Park Service effort to demonstrate the headway the president has made on the park system's maintenance backlog.

The lighthouse, however, is not functional. Its rare lens is in peril, and the housing that supports both the three-ton lens and the clockwork machinery is shored up by 10 jimmied pieces of cedar. And, here at one of the windiest spots in the country, the cast-iron lighthouse itself appears to be in danger of blowing down. An engineer's report recommends that park officials close the lighthouse during sustained 25-mph winds.

Given what park officials here know of the lighthouse's condition, they were surprised that Mainella touted it as a national model.

According to a Point Reyes park ranger in an internal memo, "The line item 'restoration' that just finished did nothing more than surface coat the lighthouse with paint." The memo states that the administration has delayed funding for a serious lighthouse restoration project until 2009.

Rather than generating the positive attention that administration officials would have liked, the maintenance backlog issue has drawn criticism from a range of groups including members of Congress.

The debate grew out of Bush's campaign pledge to reduce the maintenance backlog. He repeated that promise during a visit to Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park in 2001. The president has made the backlog one of his few environmental issues, and that has translated this summer into a concerted effort to highlight parks believed to show the success of the policy.

But the administration's claim to have earmarked $2.9 billion from 2002 through 2004 and undertaken 900 maintenance backlog projects doesn't add up, according to conservation groups. Interior Secretary Gale Norton said recently that the money has been allocated to "help reduce a $4.9-billion maintenance and repair backlog in the park system."

However, at a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks on July 8, Deputy Park Service Director Don Murphy admitted under sharp questioning that only about $200 million to $300 million of the $2.9 billion was new money above what had already been appropriated for annual maintenance. In other words, critics say, the maintenance backlog is not being addressed adequately.

In a letter to be sent next week to Bush and Norton and signed by 117 former Park Service administrators, the Washington-based conservation group Campaign for America's Lands charges the administration with inappropriately taking credit for addressing the backlog and juggling numbers to make it appear that routine maintenance funds are being spent on more-pressing projects.

"Today's operating deficit is tomorrow's maintenance backlog," the letter says.

Part of the debate is over what constitutes maintenance backlog. Generally, parks have construction and repair projects that are funded annually. When a job grows too large -- through underfunding or neglect -- it is moved to the realm of maintenance backlog.

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