Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
Interior Secretary Gale Norton repeatedly boasts this election year that "we have more money today per acre, per employee and per visitor in the National Park system than at any time in the history of the parks."
That may be technically correct, but a Deseret Morning News investigation shows the rosy picture is misleading.
Actually, the administration cut the base budgets at three of every four parks nationally this year including at 10 of the 13 National Park Service units in Utah, according to a Morning News analysis of published operating budgets for individual parks.
Where did the money go? Much apparently helped protect "national icon" parks against terrorist threats including the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, Mount Rushmore, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and memorials in Washington, D.C. So terrorism may be creating cuts at many parks to protect a few from terrorists.
Power politics also may play a role in which parks win and lose in budget battles, with such anomalies appearing as beaches around New York City receiving more than famed Grand Canyon National Park, or a parkway along the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, receiving more than Utah's internationally renowned Lake Powell.
When all of the increases and decreases are tallied, park-level operation budgets had a small increase overall making Norton's claims technically correct. It also allowed a flourish in the Republican national platform, which said that under President Bush, "parks are better managed, better funded and better protected."
Bush team disagrees
The Bush administration disagrees with Deseret Morning News findings that three of every four parks had budget cuts this year. It says its published, base park budgets do not include additional national project money spent on them. So it says most parks had increases.
It also says overall Park Service budgets increased 20 percent during Bush's term (although Morning News analysis shows that park-level budgets increased only about 7 percent from 2001-04, slightly better than inflation rates of 6 percent in that time).
Almost all park areas in Utah report service or other cuts this year a sign that cuts are real and not imaginary. None could list any government-funded service enhancements beyond filling some old job vacancies or programs to seek more help from volunteers.
Sifting through budgetary apples and oranges to assess administration claims was made more difficult when the Interior Department initially halted park superintendents in Utah from responding directly to the Deseret Morning News about a questionnaire it sent them about the condition of their parks and budgets.
(Other signs that Interior makes discussion of budgets difficult is that National Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers was fired recently after she told the press her agency is short on staff and money, and a group of former park superintendents released a leaked memo that had urged park employees to mislead the public if necessary about service cuts to avoid "public or political controversy" this election year.)
Assistant Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett said Interior was not trying to prevent superintendents from talking to the Deseret Morning News but wanted to review their answers first to ensure that each park was providing comparable data. "We wanted to make sure we were comparing apples to apples," she said.
Only selected highlights and a compilation of data from superintendents' responses were provided to the newspaper by the Interior Department. Scarlett subsequently allowed superintendents to be interviewed directly, and most acknowledged service cuts this year. (They will be discussed in the second part of the series tomorrow.)
Assessing the parks
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