Private pull on public parks

February 12, 2007

From time to time over the years, President Bush has declared himself a fan of national parks. Now he may be finally about to prove it.

In a budget proposal that generally puts a mighty squeeze on domestic programs, Mr. Bush has targeted the long-neglected, down-at-the-heels park system for a major cash infusion - $1 billion over 10 years for operating expenses, including a record $258 million increase for fiscal 2008.

Otherwise delighted park advocates are nervous, though, about a key feature of the proposal, which relies on private donors to ante up another $1 billion for special projects and exhibits that the federal government would match dollar for dollar over the decade. The goal is to tidy up the parks for the system's bicentennial in 2016.

Private entities already have such influence that the National Park Service refuses to ban snowmobiles from the beloved Yellowstone, granddaddy of all national parks, despite three successive studies documenting damage to air quality, wildlife habitat and peace and quiet.

The Bush administration has proved unduly sympathetic to the recreational vehicle industry, which contends its customers aren't content to tool through nearby forests but want to be able to ride up to Old Faithful.

Soliciting donations to the parks from those and other businesses, as well as foundations and individuals, raises the prospect that such influence will only grow. In reviewing the president's proposal, Congress should make clear that gifts won't be accepted if they come with strings attached - though such understandings are difficult to police.

Given the many demands on the federal budget, it's not likely the parks can get by without private donations, which already finance more than 10 percent of their annual spending. Mr. Bush only managed to boost operating funds, mostly for additional staff, by reducing allocations for maintenance and parkland acquisition. But Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne must be held to his promise of last year to always put conservation of the resources first. His blessing of the snowmobile policy at Yellowstone is not reassuring.

Some progress has been made since the 1990s, when hundreds of snowmobilers raced the loud and gaseous machines about the park at will, terrorizing wildlife. A recent requirement that snowmobilers be escorted by a guide helped reduce demand far below the 720-machine daily maximum. But from a pollution standpoint, the 250 or so snowmobiles remaining are still too many.

In comments solicited by the park service, an overwhelming majority of Americans has repeatedly urged a ban on snowmobiles. The administration should be listening to them.

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