Passing the hat for parks

June 06, 2006

National Park Service Director Fran P. Mainella recently resisted the temptation to spark private contributions to the parks by allowing donors to advertise their generosity on buildings, benches and bricks.

Her gesture of restraint was particularly commendable considering how desperately the park system needs the money.

With their allocations from Congress failing to keep pace with inflation - and a $6 billion backlog of maintenance and repairs - the parks already collect at least $41 million a year in private donations yet still fall so far short. Severe cost-cutting is under way.

That mostly means job-cutting, with the folks who provide the explanation and interpretation of historical sites or natural wonders being first to go. But it also affects such seemingly vital personnel as lifeguards at Assateague National Seashore, who were four short last summer, and the specialist in charge of cleaning and restoring the more-than-100-year-old cannons at Gettysburg National Military Park, whose job was eliminated after he retired.

Private or corporate donations to help support such national treasures are quite welcome, but they don't come close to closing the gap between the parks' needs and the resources available to fill them. Visitor fees are high for some families, and going up - to $30 per car at the Grand Canyon, and $15 at nearby Shenandoah National Park.

Ms. Mainella correctly concluded, however, that the small, tasteful wall plaques now permitted to honor private donations are adequate. She also squelched a scheme that effectively called for the parks to rely on charitable donations to pay for such basic functions as cleaning toilets and staffing visitors' centers.

Yet the squeeze goes on.

President Bush, who promised early in his term to reverse years of inattention to the parks, increased spending for long-overdue repair and maintenance projects. But it wasn't enough to make even a dent in the backlog, and he shifted the money from regular park operations.

The president proclaimed back then that "as good stewards" of the parks, "we must leave them better than we found them."

He seems unlikely to achieve that. But at least there won't be neon billboards marring the parkscape.

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