Politics skew park budgets

Imbalance in funding priorities leaves some top sites in a lurch

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 28 2004 1:56 p.m. MDT

Visitors take in the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site at Monroe School in Topeka, Kan.

Topeka Capital Journal

The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught on fire in 1969, or at least the pollution in it did. But it has been cleaned up, and Congress even made its scenic upstream valley a national park in 1974. But that park isn't well-known nationally, and few faraway families would plan summer vacations specifically to see it.

Still, the Cuyahoga park has a bigger base budget ($9.5 million this year) than some of the true icons of the park system, including Grand Teton National Park ($9.35 million), Mount Rainier National Park ($9.29 million), Utah's Lake Powell ($9.28 million) and Zion National Park ($6 million) among many others.

Why?

"I believe it's politics," said former Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, who served in Congress for 22 years and retired as chairman of the House Resources Committee.

He said former Rep. John Sieberling, D-Ohio, "had a farm in that (Cuyahoga) area, and he wanted the park there. He was chairman of the Parks and Public Lands Subcommittee." Not only did Sieberling win the park, but Hansen said powerful Ohio members of Congress worked through the years to ensure prime funding for it.

In fact, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility released documents it obtained last month showing that since 1999, the park service has spent $475,000 to build a winery at Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It has yet to actually produce any wine. "This project is both an absurd and improper use of taxpayers' money," said PEER executive director Jeff Ruch.

Hansen adds about Cuyahoga: "It's a pretty area. But to me, it would be like saying that Cache County in Utah or dozens of other pretty areas around the nation should be national parks. I don't think that's what the national parks are meant to be."

A Deseret Morning News analysis of park budgets nationally shows many cases of parks with apparently powerful congressional connections that have bigger budgets than other more renowned areas. It raises questions about whether park spending matches national priorities and if politics drains needed money from the best parks.

In an interview with the Deseret Morning News, Assistant Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett did not concede that politics overly influence park budgets and said they are determined "through a collaborative process" that looks at needs and visitation.

However, consider the following examples:

• Gateway National Recreation Area includes urban beaches in and around New York City and became part of the National Park System in part because local governments had trouble funding them. While well used, few faraway people would cancel trips to Florida beaches in favor of that New York beachfront.

Gateway's budget this year was $20.94 million. Only three of the 388 units in the National Park System had bigger budgets: Yellowstone, Yosemite and Independence Hall.

Gateway received more than even the Grand Canyon ($1.86 million), Washington's National Mall ($1.81 million), Great Smoky Mountains National Park ($1.5 million) and the Everglades ($1.4 million).

• The Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site is a Pennsylvania railroad tunnel and other sites celebrating the railroad's crossing of the Allegheny Mountains. Its budget this year is $2 million. That is nearly three times the budget of Utah's Golden Spike National Historic Site ($698,000), which celebrates completion of the first railroad crossing the North American continent, not just the Pennsylvania mountains.

• The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site preserves a Topeka, Kan., elementary school that was once segregated by race. It was created amid political pressure to honor the famous Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools.

Its annual operation budget is $1.16 million. That is more than the operation budget for Utah's major Arches National Park ($1.14 million).

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