Fort Survives Budget Fight

June 21, 1995|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

Fort McHenry, which the Clinton administration had identified as one of 200 national parks and monuments in danger of closing because of proposed budget cuts, would be spared under a bill approved yesterday by a key House budget panel.

Easing fears about the fort's fate, the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior voted to increase spending for the South Baltimore tourist attraction by $23,000, to $1.19 million, in the budget year beginning July 1.

While the budget still must go to the full House Appropriations Committee, then to the Senate, news of yesterday's vote brought relief at the fort, which inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner" as U.S. forces repulsed British troops in 1814.

"I couldn't begin to tell you the levels of anxiety," said John Burns, chief ranger at the 43-acre fort. "Now we know that our concerns have been heard, and it sounds like they have taken action on our behalf."

House and Senate budget resolutions had called for a 10 percent, or $108 million, cut to the U.S. Park Service and a five-year spending freeze, prompting Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to name the 200 parks earlier this month as potential victims of budget cuts.

Yesterday's vote would slightly increase the Park Service's operating budget, to about $1.1 billion, but cut spending on land acquisition, grants and construction. (The Interior Department budget, which includes the Park Service, would be cut by $1.4 billion, to $11.9 billion.)

Officials at the fort, which draws 600,000 tourists a year, had feared cutbacks could mean ending or sharply curtailing tours, cutting hours, reducing staff or eliminating some programs.

But Mr. Babbitt's dire warnings notwithstanding, few believed the 43-acre fort would be closed.

As tourists roamed the fort in the sunshine yesterday, Scott S. Sheads, the fort's historian, pointed out the 42-by-30-foot Star-Spangled Banner with 15 stars and 15 stripes. He ticked off lesser-known historical tidbits: the 10,000 Confederate soldiers held as prisoners here, the three executions at gallows where a shade tree now stands, the site of the largest hospital in America during World War I.

Mr. Sheads knows his subject well; he's writing his fourth book about his beloved Fort McHenry, where he also serves as a park ranger. To him, closing it or cutting hours or scaling back services seemed unthinkable.

"This," he said," "is what America is all about, these sites here that government's supposed to hold in trust for the American people. This place tells us who we are and what America's all about."

Tourists shared those sentiments.

"If you're going to throw this away, you might as well close the White House," said John Ort, a North Bergen, N.J., man who visited the fort for the first time with his wife, Patricia. "What do you know if you don't know your heritage?"

The fort's popularity has grown in the past several years, with the number of annual visitors climbing nearly 40,000 since 1990. With a staff of 26, the fort offers regular tours, films and audio exhibits and a wealth of programs and events from military drills to children's programs.

But two centuries of the elements and a steady parade of tourists have taken their toll on the fort, completed in 1802. The walls that survived the British bombs, now cracked and crumbling, are undergoing a $3 million federally financed renovation.

And a citizens group, the Patriots of Fort McHenry, last year began an effort to raise $5.5 million to build a new visitor and education center.

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