Washington, DC — The centerpiece of the Bush administration plan for national parks, the Centennial Initiative, may actually worsen a growing backlog of deferred maintenance and skew priorities toward questionable projects pushed by donors, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Few if any of the projects selected in the first round of Centennial projects are on the park service maintenance backlog list.
On August 25, 2006, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne unveiled the initiative in which one hundred million dollars in private donations would be matched by federal funds, every year for ten years beginning in Fiscal Year 2008 and continuing through 2016 – the centennial year of the national park system.
In August 2007, the National Park Service (NPS) announced over 200 projects that qualified for inclusion in the Initiative’s first year. A review by PEER points out that—
- There is little overlap between selected Centennial projects and the ballooning NPS deferred maintenance backlog, now estimated by park officials at approximately $8 billion;
- New visitor centers, trails and other infrastructure funded by the initiative will add to park maintenance needs; and
- Donor influence may lead to selection of questionable projects. PEER points to a specialized bike trail slated to be built from scratch at Big Bend National Park as a prime example.
“Waste water treatment plants are not sexy sells for recruiting prestige-minded private partners but our park system cannot continue to ignore sewage and its other housekeeping needs,” stated PEER Board member Frank Buono, a former NPS manager. “Subsisting on low hanging fruit is not a sustainable diet.”
In addition, the Centennial Initiative process ignores acquisition of lands, water rights or other expenditures that have traditionally been considered essential for betterment of the park system.
The private partnership nature of the Centennial Initiative also raises the danger that special interests can demand customized projects that do not serve park needs in return for their donations. The bike trail at Big Bend, for example, will be designed to resemble a racecourse, to maximize thrill, thus precluding other users. Big Bend already has more than 200 miles of existing trails, yet none of the existing trails will be used. Even with an International Mountain Biking Association “partnership,” NPS would still have to produce $60,000 as its share of new trail construction, and additional sums for future maintenance.
“The vast majority of the Centennial projects are worthy,” Buono added. “The danger, however, is that unless priorities are identified free from donor involvement the parks could become a partnership piñata.”