Inadequate funding threatens national park operations just as new one nears reality here

Problems in national parks around the country do not bode well for the future operation of the proposed bi-state Lewis and Clark National Historical Park in Clatsop and Pacific counties.

Federal funding of existing parks has been a quietly simmering controversy for years, with a thick catalog of deferred maintenance projects and inadequate staffing levels across the country.

One nearby example reported by the Seattle Times: "Olympic National Park is so pressed for cash that officials plan to close the visitors center in Forks and eliminate most seasonal rangers this summer, and they agreed to keep the popular Hurricane Ridge Road open in April only after the city of Port Angeles promised to help foot the snowplow bill."

Some retired National Park Service managers, appalled at what they perceive to be a fundamental breach of the government's obligation to safeguard these sites for posterity, are trying hard to wake the public to these issues.

Meanwhile, top officials have allegedly instructed park managers to shut up about the matter, or if asked about cuts, to refer to them as "service-level adjustments" and otherwise minimize any discussion in this election year.

Problems in the parks certainly predate President Bush. It has always been easier to convince Congress to create parks than to come through with far less glamorous operations and maintenance funding.

But the growing crisis in park funding is particularly ironic in this administration, considering the president promised during the 2000 campaign to make the national parks much more of a priority. To its credit, maintenance spending has improved. But in other ways, parks are worse off than before.

U.S. Reps. Brian Baird, D-Wash., and Mark Souder, R-Ind., last week announced a helpful step, the formation of a National Parks Caucus. So far, 32 in the U.S. House have joined the bi-partisan group.

"Our goal in the caucus is to raise awareness in Congress of the issues and problems facing our National Park Service and help them preserve these treasures for generations to come," Baird said.

Citizen letters, e-mails, faxes and phone calls really do have an impact on congressional behavior. With our region's growing stake in a healthy park system, it behooves us all to tell Congress and the president to do right by these precious assets.

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