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Withering National Parks

June 11, 2004

What's the price of tax cuts for wealthy Americans and fighting the war in Iraq? Well, start with continued decay of the national park system. The tax cuts and the war affect every other part of the federal budget, of course, but the cost to the parks became particularly evident this week as the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee drafted the National Park Service budget.

Give credit to House members for increasing the National Park Service's basic operations budget by $32 million, adding $10 million to the original request by President Bush, for a total of about $1.6 billion. But the increase doesn't begin to match the $130 billion in homeland security, law enforcement and other new costs imposed by the federal government. Park superintendents have already cut the cuttable corners and can barely maintain the most basic services.

For example, the law enforcement staff at Death Valley National Park was reduced from 23 to 15 over the last several years. Vast stretches of the park now go unpatrolled, though Death Valley is a favored route of drug runners.

The parks "are running to stand still," said Blake Selzer, a budget specialist for the National Parks Conservation Assn. Still, the $32-million annual increase pales beside the estimated $93-million cost of the war in Iraq per day. "America's national parks are in a bad way and they are only getting worse," former Supt. Bill Wade of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia told the Washington Post in late May. Wade is a spokesman for a group of retired Park Service officials that is an advocate for the parks.

The House committee axed a number of construction projects, such as a new visitor center for popular Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, because the parks won't have the money to run the facilities properly. For only the second time in years, the committee wiped out new land purchases paid for by a special offshore oil revenue fund.

The Senate committee is scheduled to take up its version of the parks budget in a couple of weeks. Park advocates are counting on allies such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). However, as the deficit grows, even the most beloved domestic causes are on the block.

For a while, the deficit -- seemingly ignored -- just increased while Congress kept spending. Now sobriety has returned in some corners of the Capitol. But as the hunt for savings grows urgent, lawmakers will look in ever more difficult places, including national forests and monuments and parks, to avoid touching the tax cuts. What will later generations think of this squandering?

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