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

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.


"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).

• Rock Creek Park surrounds a stream that winds through Washington, D.C., (near homes of many powerful people) and has a variety of city-parklike picnic facilities and trails. Its budget this year is $6.26 million. That is more than the budget of Utah's major Zion National Park ($6 million).

• Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, an outdoor arena for theater and concerts in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., is somewhat akin to the USANA Amphitheatre in West Valley City and many private arenas nationally. Its base budget gave it $3.2 million in government funding. That is more than Bryce Canyon National Park's budget of $2.7 million.

• Golden Gate National Recreation Area includes urban beaches around San Francisco, as well as Alcatraz Island and the old military Presidio of San Francisco. Fights in Congress were fierce over putting such things as the Presidio into the National Park System, but the powerful California delegation prevailed.

Golden Gate's budget this year is $13.76 million, 10th highest among all 388 National Park Service units. That is larger than such other major, likely better known parks as Glacier ($11.07 million), Rocky Mountain ($10.34 million) and Shenandoah ($10.26 million).

• The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area covers hills in the greater Los Angeles area. Its budget is $5.89 million this year, which is more than Utah's major Canyonlands National Park ($5.33 million).

Those budget numbers are reported in a year when three-fourths of National Park Service units had their base budgets cut and environmental groups and organizations of former Park Service employees are calling for vast expansion of spending on parks.

Hansen blames politics for making budget squeezes worse by including many questionable parks that he says drain resources from better parks.

"(Former Rep.) Phil Burton (D-Calif.) was a big pusher on the Interior Committee and started an organization called the Park a Month club" for members to create local parks to increase tourism, Hansen said. "They are not all Yellowstones," he added sarcastically.

They include parks containing writers' homes (Eugene O'Neil, Edgar Allen Poe), homes of artists (J. Alden Weir), homes of signers of the Declaration of Independence (Thomas Stone, Charles Pinckney), homes of high-achieving African Americans (Maggie Stone, George Washington Carver), a jazz district (New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park) and even one to honor Rosie the Riveter (in California).

Deseret Morning News graphicDNews graphicPolitics in park fundingRequires Adobe Acrobat.

Hansen said the worst case of politics he saw was in creation of the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site near Charleston, S.C., to interpret Pinckney's Snee Farm plantation.

"Pinckney, who signed the Declaration of Independence, was supposed to have been born there, so they put the park there. Then they found out a few years later that he was born 52 miles down the road, and there is a Wal-Mart there. But they kept the park," Hansen said, even though the main farmhouse there has nothing to do with Pinckney.

When Hansen was chairman of the House Resources Committee and complained about some lower-quality parks, he said he sent staffers to interview people visiting the Pinckney site to find out why they came.

"Most didn't know anything about Pinckney. They stopped to use the restrooms, so we would have done just as well to just have a sanitation station there," he said.

Besides politics creating some questionable parks, Hansen said he found during his years in Congress that yearly appropriations are "not necessarily based on merit but on political clout" as members fight to help local parks.

However, Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he has never noticed any members overtly push for questionable funding for home-state parks. "But now that you have alerted me to some of the disparities, I may look closer in the future."

But what Bennett said he has seen is "the cheap political maneuver where they say, 'Let's get a park created in my home state or district for which I can get a headline' . . . then they lose interest in it." He adds, "There's not as much political benefit in getting a new visitors center for an existing park as there is in getting a new park."

Bennett said because of such thinking, too many parks were added without additional money into the system — which hurts all parks. Because of that, he said, he has focused on trying to help existing Utah parks — such as fighting for recent new visitors centers at Zion, Bryce Canyon, Hovenweep and Arches, and shuttles at Zion and Bryce — than trying to create new park areas.

Scarlett at the Interior Department discounts the role of politics in how park budgets are developed.

"It is kind of a collaborative process," she said, adding the Park Service tries "to factor in things like what are the visitation trends. If trends are going up, we want to devote more in areas that are having a visitation increase."

She said park needs are also scrutinized. For example, "An area that has been particularly prominent since 9/11 has been visitor safety and security" so many "national icon" parks have received increases to fund anti-terrorism activities.

Hansen and Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., once proposed a way they thought would decrease politics behind parks and park funding. They proposed creating a commission to review criteria for creating new parks, and whether some lesser-quality parks should be transferred to states or other groups to save money for other parks.

Environmental groups and the Clinton administration attacked that and proclaimed it a "park closure commission." Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said all parks are gems and important to different groups. Some groups claimed Hansen was putting Yellowstone and Yosemite at risk of closure.

"That's not what we were trying to do. But we were creamed politically," Hansen said.

He adds it would be tough to resurrect such an idea because it would be an easy political target and easy to misunderstand. "Still, I see a lot of value in it. I think it would help meritorious parks do a better job and have the money they need," Hansen said.

E-mail: lee@desnews.com