Selling off the family jewels

September 19, 1996|By Lester A. Picker

WOULD YOU BUY A house that sits on a spectacular piece of property with stunning views, and not put aside money to maintain it? That's what our federal government has done.

In an ethical contortion that at first glance seems reasonable, our esteemed lawmakers in Congress have abrogated our government's social contract with Americans. When Congress set up our national parks system with the establishment of Yellowstone in 1872, it ensured through the National Park Service that the parks would also be maintained. Whether purchased with tax dollars, or accepted as gifts, these jewels of natural history were to be maintained in perpetuity.

Then, in 1967, Congress created the National Parks Foundation, a private nonprofit organization designed to accept bequests from generous citizens for a favorite park or monument. This act, innocuous at the time, now provides a handy vehicle for the radical government restructuring that is now ravaging the National Park system.

Over the past 15 years, the national parks have suffered consistent maintenance cuts, while visitors have increased to record levels. Now Congress proposes to cover the $4 billion in unmet park-maintenance needs through something called ''public-private partnerships.'' It wants the National Parks Foundation to aggressively solicit money from corporations.

It seems to be working. The foundation has announced its first million-dollar gift from Target, a national drug-store chain, to help renovate the 112-year-old Washington Monument. Amid a huge public-relations blitz, Target also pledged to help raise another $4 million to complete the project. Congress has set up similar foundations for the federal forest and fisheries services.

So, what's the big deal about Smokey the Bear panhandling?

Our national parks and monuments are treasures that we have paid for, and collectively own, through our federal tax dollars. That is what government does -- acquires assets or delivers services for the collective good of its citizens. But in the present political climate of retrenchment, our legislators have chosen to refuse to maintain those assets.

Competing with charities

Through the smokescreen of the foundation, moreover, the federal government is competing against charities for the limited money available from for-profit corporations. Corporations collectively account for only 6 percent of all dollars given to charity, and now even that funding is threatened by direct government competition.

Further compromising Congress' position is the fact that since 1980 the government has systematically cut tens of billions of dollars in funding for charitable organizations. Meanwhile poverty, homelessness and other social problems have increased, creating even more demands for the services that charities provide. The world they now face is more competitive than ever. These charities need the small, but critical, donations they get from American businesses. Now the feds are after that money.

It won't take many million-dollar gifts such as Target gave to the National Parks Foundation before charities feel the pinch. Given the choice, most companies I know would rather put money into a flashy National Parks project than a dull homeless shelter or food bank. Mobil Oil, Gannett and Marriott have already donated in the million-dollar range to the foundation.

How long do you think it will be before a tantalizingly large gift causes the Lincoln Memorial to be renamed the Ford-Lincoln Memorial? Better yet: ''Hey kids! Look for the Phillip Morris Smokey the Bear coming to your classroom soon!''

Lester A. Picker writes about nonprofit corporations.

Pub Date: 9/19/96

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