Land rich, cash poor

The Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park may be in for a windfall of sorts—$1.5 million and $1.9 million in new funding, respectively—if the Bush administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2008 is approved. That represents an 11 percent increase for both parks over fiscal year 2006 levels. (Congress has not yet approved the 2007 budget.)

“This is exciting news for the National Park Service,” said Houck Medford, chairman of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, an advocacy group based in Winston-Salem. “As far as we can tell, it’s all new money,” he added, meaning that funds would not be pulled away from other agency priorities. The extra money would enable both Western North Carolina parks to hire about 50 seasonal workers apiece—a critical need for staffing visitors centers and other facilities—allowing the agency’s permanent staff “to spend more time doing the jobs they were hired for,” said Medford.

The Bush administration’s proposed 2008 budget calls for roughly $2.4 billion in funding for the agency—a $258 million increase over 2006, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.

Conservation groups and agency staffers were understandably thrilled about the news. The National Parks Conservation Association credits Sen. Elizabeth Dole and Rep. Brad Miller, both of North Carolina, with pushing for the budget increase. House freshman Heath Shuler is also seeking better national-park funding in his district, added Medford.

“Congressman Shuler publicly acknowledged that getting money for the Parkway and the Smokies is a priority for him,” said Medford. “When we see one leader doing that, it’s easier for other legislative leaders to pick up the song.”

Even with the new money, however, the Park Service would remain seriously underfunded, with an $800 million annual shortfall. At the Blue Ridge Parkway alone, the maintenance backlog amounts to some $200 million.

Staffing is still a significant problem, however. At the Parkway, no less than 57 permanent positions—that’s one in four—remain vacant and unfunded, including the high-level posts of chief of maintenance, chief of public affairs, chief of interpretation, and chief of concessions. Filling all of those positions would require an additional $4 million in operating funds, according to the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.

Staff shortages aren’t the only issue. Facilities are showing wear and tear, bathrooms are malfunctioning, and trees are cleared less often after storms. And with no money to pay contractors to keep views open along the scenic highway, the work simply isn’t getting done, says Medford.

“The greatest need, in terms of maintenance at the Parkway, is the loss of views,” he notes. “Many areas are completely overgrown.”

One of the projects included in the new budget is the first installment of the “Centennial Challenge,” which would match up to $100 million worth of public donations over the next 10 years, in preparation for the Park Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016.

The effort harks back to “Mission 66,” a federal initiative launched in 1956 to spiff up the parks for the agency’s golden anniversary a decade later. More than $1 billion was spent to upgrade facilities and help the parks cope with skyrocketing numbers of visitors in an affluent, leisure-seeking, postwar America.

Not all park priorities would get a boost under the president’s spending plan. Nationwide, funds for major construction and maintenance at national parks will be cut by 36 percent from 2006 levels, according to NPCA. Money for parkland acquisition is similarly reduced, from $70.9 million in 2006 to $46.9 million in the new budget. And a quarter of that money is already earmarked for a Flight 93 monument and Civil War battlefields.

But while Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis concedes that the Parkway’s needs remain considerable, he isn’t looking this gift horse in the mouth.

“This is a time to be optimistic,” he said. “It’s the biggest funding increase I’ve seen in my 34 years with the Park Service.”

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