I have to admit, I was more than a little bit intrigued to read Parked! How Congress’ Misplaced Priorities Are Trashing Our National Treasures, a report issued in late October by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK). In 2008, while working for the National Heritage Areas program, I had helped gather data for a response to an information request from the Senator’s office, so ever since then, I’ve kept an eye on his various publications concerning the National Parks and other public lands programs.
Though the tone of the report is at times sensationalist (the cover at right an especially good example), one interesting critique did catch my attention, the propensity of members of Congress to introduce and then pass bills establishing new park units with no concurrent effort on the part of appropriators to adequately fund these units. This is not a new problem, but it has gotten worse over since the late 1970’s and 1980’s. This same issue has also proven incredibly detrimental to the heritage areas program, where funding has remained essentially flat, while the number of areas has more than doubled since the early 2000’s. (Coburn, never a fan of National Heritage Areas, criticizes them in the report as well.)
The National Parks Traveler published an interesting summary of the report, which included commentary from the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. Deny Galvin, a former deputy director of the National Park Service, noted that: “This report is really more a criticism of Congress than of the NPS. Most of the programs it criticizes are based in law. The NPS has to administer them…The contention that (the Park Service’s) recent actions have exacerbated the (maintenance) backlog doesn’t stand up. Three of the programs it would eliminate have been around for about a half century. (Historic Preservation Fund 1966, Land and Water Fund 1965, National Recreation and Preservation ((RTCA and Heritage Areas)) 1963 with some authorities from the ’30s…” (National Parks Traveler, October 29, 2013)
Is it a problem that members of Congress continue to establish park units and affiliated areas with no means of adequately funding them? Will those authorizing new parks and those tasked with funding them (and existing parks and affiliated areas) ever be on the same page? Do we even want them to be – as this might mean important sites not getting designated. Are more National Heritage Areas, in particular, being designated because the regulatory requirements (i.e. zoning, a federal commission or federal funds for land acquisition) rarely remain part of NHA bills? Parks do not have a sunset, but NHAs often do have a date inserted in their authorizing legislation – how does this impact the debate? What do others think of this report and its findings? Will its impact be positive, negative or forgetful?