WASHINGTON - Environmentalists say the Bush administration is forcing the National Park Service to cut millions of dollars in needed repair and rehabilitation projects in order to pay for homeland security and to pay for studying the privatization of some 1,700 agency jobs.
A memo from the budget officer of the park service's Pacific West Region details that some 28 percent of funds earmarked for rehabilitation of facilities in the region's six states is being diverted for "anti-terrorism activities and competitive sourcing studies."
The park service has an estimated maintenance backlog of some $5 billion--twice the total of the agency's annual funding.
According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which obtained and released the memo, needed maintenance projects are being sacrificed for the security and outsourcing programs, including an asbestos abatement projected in Yosemite, seismic safety rehabilitation for 18 buildings in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the upgrade of the sewage lagoon at Crater Lakes National Park.
Environmentalists say similar diversions of park maintenance and repair projects are occurring throughout the country.
Funding homeland security is one issue, but the studies to support privatizing park service jobs is something completely different, says attorney Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER.
The administration, which aims to review the prospect for outsourcing as many as 850,000 federal jobs across the government, has asked the park service to study 1,700 jobs by next year. The studies are intended to help determine if it would be more cost-effective to outsource these positions to private contractors, but the administration has not given the agency the $2.5-to-$3 million these studies are estimated to cost.
"This is a quota-based ideological drive to replace civil servants with private contractors, regardless of the cost to the public, the park service or the national assets it protects," Ruch said.
Ruch--and many other environmentalists--worry that the Bush administration is trying to politicize the park service by privatizing its workforce.
Employees hired by a private contractor, environmentalists say, would be less likely to put the interests of the national parks first.
"The national parks should be protected by mission-driven public servants," said Craig Obey, vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).
There is a role for outsourcing, Obey contends, but the Bush administration is trying to privatize people in science and resource positions, a move that would blur the line between politics and the mission of Park Service employees.
These current outsourcing studies are a waste of money, Obey said, and the exercise "demoralizes the people who are there now."
David Barna, the chief of the National Park Service's Office of Communications, says this is an "over-reaction" to continued study of a practice now familiar to the agency.
Some 20,000 of the 45,000 individuals who help manage the National Park Service work for private contractors, said Barna, a 28-year veteran of the agency.
"This is not new to us," Barna said. "We are looking at opportunities to save the public some money. Most of these are not even specific park jobs."
There is concern about the effect of the studies on the workforce, he said, but given budget cuts and limited funds, the agency has to learn to do "less with less."
Barna acknowledged that the park service has been tasked with finding $2.5-to-$3 million to pay for outsourcing studies, but stressed that homeland security is a heavier burden.
"Homeland security was the big ticket item, not the outsourcing," Brana said, adding that each day the nation is under the Homeland's Code Orange alert, the agency must pay an additional $66,500 in security costs.
Shifting scarce resources to cover shifting priorities and needs is commonplace at the park service, which has growing responsibilities in the wake of shrinking resources. In addition to the $5 billion in maintenance backlog, the park service is in dire need of increased operating funds.
On average, U.S. national parks are operating with only two-thirds of the needed funding, according to the NPCA.
Conservationists say the diversion of funds for outsourcing studies underscores the Bush administration's indifference to the future of the National Park Service system and is a symptom of the President's hostility toward protecting the nation's natural resources.
During his election campaign, George W. Bush pledged to eliminate the $4.9 billion maintenance backlog at the national parks by 2006. Since he took office, Bush has proposed only an additional $366 million for maintenance.
The administration's proposed budget for the National Park Service is $2.4 billion, only $8.3 million above the 2003 request.
Forcing the park service to use much needed maintenance funds to fund the outsourcing studies shows that the administration's priorities are "sorely out of whack," said Obey.
Some 25 former high-level National Park Service staffers registered similar sentiments with the administration in a letter sent today to President Bush and Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
In their letter, the former career National Park Service employees ask the President to end "this unprecedented attack on America's park lands."
They say the Bush administration's clean air policies will worsen the air quality of the nation's parks and that its public lands policies threaten the boundaries and biodiversity of parks. The administration is willing to shut the public out of the parks management in favor of resource extraction, the former park service employees say, and it is eager to turn over management to the private sector.
"I worked for four Republican Presidents and two Democrats and during the course of that career, never have I witnessed such an ideological war on the natural resource laws, policies or practices or institutions," Mike Finley, former superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, said in a speech today. "Even our national parks are not safe from this assault."
Finley spoke on behalf of the former park service staffers who signed the letter and asked that the administration's policies affecting the national parks get "the same scrutiny that Enron, Worldcom, Monica Lewinski or Whitewater received."
"After all, natural security is national security," Finley said.
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