Washington, DC -- The cash-strapped National Park Service is subsidizing a private vineyard and winery on the grounds of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, according to agency documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Since 1999, the Park Service has spent more than $475,000 on the vineyard – which has yet to bear fruit either literally or financially – and related operations that the Park Service calls its "Countryside Initiative."
The privately run winery on Park Service land consists of structures built with taxpayers' funds, including an art gallery, parking lot, barn, trellises and an electric fence for "wildlife exclusion." In addition, the Park Service spent more than $24,000 for a water line to bring municipal water to irrigate the grapes.
The vineyard covers 2.5 acres and is planted with grape varieties including Cabernet Franc, Baco Noir, Chambourcin, and Tramonette. The private operators project producing 10,000 cases of wine per year and expect their first harvest in 2005.
"This project is both an absurd and improper use of taxpayers' money," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch who noted that the Countryside Initiative would establish agricultural operations that have no history in the Cuyahoga Valley, contrary to the Park Service mandate of preserving cultural resources and protecting the natural scenery. "It is not the business of the Park Service to help the great state of Ohio acquire a reputation for winemaking."
Apart from the taxpayer expense, PEER points to the environmental implications of the project. Besides approving pesticide applications at the vineyard, the Countryside Initiative also includes a "free range" chicken ranch and processing plant where carcasses and waste will be composted on site. In addition, the Park Service has cut down trees and demolished a greenhouse used to store chemicals for use as a field for growing vegetables.
The Park Service has spent freely on this and similar public-private "partnership" projects despite cutbacks in staff and visitor services at several major parks. The lease agreement with the winery and the pullet processing plant at Cuyahoga Valley National Park runs through 2009.
The winery has already begun making experimental batches of wine and holding public tastings in the park. "If the Park Service considers winemaking a valid recreational expenditure, what are they going to finance next – a nightclub and casino?" asked Ruch.