Parks Group Gives Bush "D" Grade on National Parks Protection

Date:   May 29, 2001
Contact:   Roger DiSilvestro, National Parks Conservation Association, 202-454-3335
Courtney Cuff, National Parks Conservation Association Pacific Office, 510-368-0115

Parks Group Gives Bush "D" Grade on National Parks Protection

Washington, D.C. - The Bush Administration has highlighted the needs of national parks by pledging nearly $5 billion over the next five years to eliminate the decades-old parks-maintenance and resource-protection backlog. While this sounds good, how are parks really faring under President Bush? The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) has examined the Administration's record and is providing a report card on its performance.

"President Bush receives a D for his record to date on national parks," says Thomas Kiernan, NPCA president. "While his report card shows one important area of promise, his work needs significant improvement across the board. At the recent Yale commencement, President Bush told students that he is living proof that you can get Cs in college and still become president. Although Cs may be acceptable at most universities, Cs and Ds are not acceptable in maintaining a world-class system of national parks."

America's national parks have suffered from years of bipartisan neglect, leaving them with a wide variety of critical problems, ranging from deteriorating infrastructure to the dwindling of the wildlife species many parks were created to protect. The Bush Administration has pledged to provide $4.9 billion for improved park management and resource protection, a major step in the right direction for correcting the many park problems that the Administration has inherited. But the Administration's stated plans for spending that money do not wholly match park needs.

The Bush Administration has declared that it will put the bulk of the funding on repairing park roads and buildings. Although such infrastructure is badly in need of repair in parks across the nation, brick-and-mortar projects alone will not restore America's national parks. The parks suffer from a diversity of ills that include:

Failing Air and Water Quality: Coal-fired power plants have jeopardized parks such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the nation's most-visited park, with air pollution so heavy that historic mountain vistas are being fogged out of sight. At Great Smokies overlooks where visitors 40 years ago could see mountains 100 miles away, summer views are now reduced by haze to less than 15 miles. Wildlife suffers from this air pollution, too. Researchers at Great Smokies have documented damage from ground-level ozone to 30 different plant species and observed an additional 60 species with ozone-like damage. Acid precipitation threatens park lakes and streams throughout the East.

Jeopardized Wildlife: Lack of funding has made it impossible for park staff across the nation even to determine which species live within park boundaries. Not a single national park has inventoried the species it protects, and only one—Great Smokies—has even initiated such a project. Lack of funding keeps Yellowstone National Park staff from determining why the park's pronghorn antelope population is declining and forces bear biologists to neglect their work while they are assigned to direct traffic. The Park Service expects that 63 percent of parks threatened and endangered species will decline over the next five years.

Motorized Abuse: Off-road vehicle use in national parks poses unnecessary risks to park ecology, park visitors, and park staff. In Yellowstone, snowmobiles account for 66 percent of carbon monoxide emissions annually, and each snowmobile produces 60 times more pollution than the average automobile. JetSkis dump at least a third of their fuel directly into the waters of national seashores. Swamp buggies have cut 22,000 miles of trails into Florida's Big Cypress National Preserve. These vehicles have their place in recreation—nearly 400,000 miles of trails are open to snowmobiles on national forests—but they do not belong in national parks.

Lack of Park Transportation: Every year, 2 million visitors come into Yellowstone. Ten million visit Great Smokies. Visitors increasingly find national parks clogged with the traffic they had sought to leave back home. The remedy, already tested successfully in parks as divergent as Acadia in Maine, Denali in Alaska, and Zion in Utah, is development of efficient mass transportation into the parks, but no coherent national plan for park mass transit has been initiated.

Declining Visitor Education and Interpretation: Educational programs that taught visitors more about the natural and cultural histories of our parks have been cut for lack of funds. As a result, almost 60 percent of all school groups that wish to participate in Expedition Yellowstone, a week-long, hands-on educational program, are turned away. In addition, studies have repeatedly shown that park visitation does not match the nation's ethnic diversity. The National Park Service needs to initiate policies, such as culturally inclusive interpretations of historical events, to represent all Americans.

Stifled Park System Expansion: Federal law requires that the National Park Service recommend to Congress yearly a list of sites that should be studied for potential addition to the National Park System. In this way, the nation can monitor and preserve vanishing ecosystems and America's historic and cultural heritage. Potential park sites, such as California's Gaviota Coast and the islands off Georgia and South Carolina that are home to the Gullah-Geechee people, should be studied for addition to the National Park System because they represent important elements of our natural heritage and cultural history.

Insufficient Management Skills: The Park Service often lacks the needed financial-management skills for handling large budgets. With increased park funding will come an increased need for park administrators who understand basic business management and financial flow. The National Park Service needs to seek individuals with these particular skills.

"President Bush has earned a D on parks so far, but fortunately we're still early in his term," Kiernan says. "With some tutoring from the American public and less partying with industry, he can still earn an A."

A Bush Report Card
An Interim Report on President Bush's National Parks Policies


Subject Grade
1. Park Funding: C+
President Bush's pledge of $4.9 billion for national parks over the next five years is a step in the right direction. Moreover, the Administration has endorsed reforms that will significantly improve financial management of the parks. But Bush's first-year budget appears to play a shell game by including only $61 million in new money (only 2 percent of what he pledged), and 98 percent of his plan is for one-time road and building projects, mostly ignoring park annual operating needs and emphasizing infrastructure over nature and education.

2. Park Air and Water Quality: D
President Bush's energy plan will likely worsen air quality in many parks because he proposes weakening the Clean Air Act, and his unwillingness to address global climate change spells disaster for many of our parks. If he moves to drill for oil and gas in national monuments, serious resource degradation is all but guaranteed.

3. Park Wildlife: C
President Bush provided an increase of $20 million in his budget for better monitoring of plants and animals in the parks. This is a good step forward, continuing an emphasis begun in the last Administration, but a far cry from what is needed. At the same time, the Administration has taken a serious step backward by seeking to prevent citizens from bringing lawsuits to win federal listing for vanishing species, eliminating a key method for protecting threatened and endangered plants and animals.

4. Motorized Abuse of Parks: D-
The Administration is likely to overturn needed controls on snowmobiles, Jet Skis, and off-road vehicles in national parks. The minus is for negotiating behind closed doors with only the snowmobile industry.

5. Park Transportation: Incomplete
The Bush Administration has promised more money to improve transportation within parks but is rejecting a winter transportation plan for Yellowstone. If the funding goes entirely for roads, the grade will be an "F." If it goes primarily for creative, energy-saving shuttle systems, bike paths, and alternative-fueled buses, the grade will be an "A."

6. Park Visitor Education: Incomplete
The Bush Administration has neither increased park education budgets nor endorsed efforts to improve Park Service outreach to all Americans, regardless of their heritage. So while there is not enough data for an initial grade, concerns are growing.

7. Park System Expansion: F
Secretary Gale Norton's announcement that the Department of the Interior will not even consider potential new parks, as required by law, earns the Administration a failing grade. This action flies in the face of the need to protect additional nationally significant landscapes and the diverse cultural and historical sites that represent the spirit of America.

On average, the Bush Administration has been unsuccessful so far in appropriately allocating new funding and in crafting strong policies to meet the needs of national parks. Thus, the Bush Administration's overall interim grade must be a D.


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