So much land, so little money

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

When the Mojave National Preserve was created by the Desert Protection Act in 1994, its enemies in Congress hit it where it hurts (HCN, 4/14/97). In 1996, California Republican Rep. Jerry Lewis led a successful effort to reduce the preserve's annual budget to a single dollar, leaving it to scrape together money from other parks until its funding was restored the following year.

Most parks aren't in such dire straits, but money is tight throughout the agency. Over the past 15 years, the Park Service has gained 44 new units and more than 4 million acres of land, but the agency's operations budget has remained essentially constant.

"Congress is tremendous at creating parks, but they're particularly horrible at finding money to support them." says Brian Huse of the National Parks and Conservation Association's Pacific regional office. "The big political boost for members comes from creating national parks in their district, or someone else's district."

And the money that the Park Service does receive from Congress may not always be used in the best interest of the resource, says Kevin Collins of the National Parks and Conservation Association's Washington, D.C., office.

"The Park Service needs to improve the ability of rangers to go out and survey resources and monitor resources," he says. "They have a history of being very good about visitor services, which is very effective at gaining public support, but if they're serious about resource protection, they're going to have to shift money around."

The Park Service can't lobby for money on its own, but national environmental groups are now organizing around the funding issue, says Rindy O'Brien of The Wilderness Society's Washington, D.C., office. She works with a coalition of about 20 environmental groups that pushes for park appropriations on Capitol Hill. "We've found we need to start at the front end of the process if we want to get additional funding," she says.

George Barnes, a longtime Sierra Club activist and supporter of the Desert Protection Act, says the controversies over funding for Death Valley and the Mojave National Preserve have provided some lessons for activists.

"People still look at (the Desert Protection Act) and say "Wow, that was pretty audacious'," he says. He'd advise supporters of future parks to be equally bold about the size of their proposals. "But now that the Park Service has so much more land, I'd also say we should be audacious on the ground and become part of a major campaign to get these (proposed) parks funded," he adds. "It'll be a bad situation if the Park Service continues to be starved."

Still, most environmentalists say park designation should come first. "I'd rather have these boundaries drawn around these areas and be working to protect them than have these areas outside the national park system," says Huse. "I don't think anyone is prepared to say we have enough national parks."

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