Re­port: Parks an un­nec­es­sary cost

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY STEPHEN DINAN

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment spends more than $33 for ev­ery one of the 24 daily visi­tors to the na­tional park cre­ated to com­mem­o­rate Pres­i­dent Clin­ton’s birth­place, ac­cord­ing to a scathing re­port re­leased Tues­day that said Congress has cre­ated far more parks than the sys­tem can han­dle.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Ok­la­homa Repub­li­can and au­thor of the re­port, said his col­leagues are more in­ter­ested in es­tab­lish­ing new parks than in spend­ing money on up­keep of ex­ist­ing ones, leav­ing some of the coun­try’s gems in bad shape. The re­sult, he said, is “all th­ese parks that no­body wants to visit.”

He pointed to a $24 mil­lion back­log in work on trails at the Grand Canyon and the $2 mil­lion in tort claims filed one year from peo­ple who tripped on bad side­walks at In­de­pen­dence Na­tional Park in Philadel­phia.

“The ques­tion is, do we add more na­tional parks or do we take care of the parks we have to­day?” said Mr. Coburn, the top waste-watcher in Congress. “We are adding so many parks that have no visi­ta­tion. … No­body wants to visit them. They’re ba­si­cally an ear­mark for mem­bers of Congress.”

He said the Clin­ton Birth­place Na­tional His­toric Site in Arkansas, which av­er­ages 24 visi­tors a day, is a par­tic­u­larly stun­ning ex­am­ple of a bro­ken sys­tem be­cause it was Mr. Clin­ton who signed leg­is­la­tion in 1998 to clamp down on friv­o­lous new parks — only to see Congress vi­o­late that rule in 2009 to cre­ate the birth­place.

Other pres­i­den­tial birth sites also are suck­ing up tax­pay­ers’ money. Ron­ald Rea­gan’s boy­hood home in Illi­nois isn’t even part of the Na­tional Park Ser­vice, and the own­ers show no signs of sell­ing, but the gov­ern­ment still found a way to spend $72,000 in 2012 on the site.

The Park Ser­vice will re­view the re­port, said spokesman Jef­frey Ol­son. He said it is “a good dis­cus­sion to have” with the Park Ser­vice ap­proach­ing its 100th an­niver­sary in 2016.

The de­bate over adding park sites ver­sus main­tain­ing ex­ist­ing ones has been con­tin­u­ing for years. The Park Ser­vice reg­u­larly bat­tles some of law­mak­ers’ pro­posed sites, not­ing an $11.5 bil­lion main­te­nance back­log.

Mr. Coburn said the in­cen­tives are wrong: Law­mak­ers get more po­lit­i­cal bang out of cre­at­ing parks than they do by boost­ing fund­ing for ex­ist­ing parks.

Full na­tional parks, such as the Grand Canyon or Yel­low­stone, can be cre­ated only by an act of Congress. Na­tional mon­u­ments, na­tional his­toric sites and the like can be des­ig­nated by Congress, the pres­i­dent or the In­te­rior Depart­ment.

While chiefly blam­ing Congress, Mr. Coburn said the Park Ser­vice is bloated with bu­reau­cracy and of­ten over­pays when it tries to ex­pand parks. He said Grand Te­ton Na­tional Park in Wyoming is try­ing to add 86 acres at a cost of $186,047 per acre. By com­par­i­son, the av­er­age value of farm and ranch land in Wyoming was $540 an acre in 2011.

Congress could de­com­mis­sion some of the lesser-used Na­tional Park sites and turn them over to states or pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships.

That was what hap­pened in the case of Union Sta­tion just blocks from the Capi­tol. The Park Ser­vice took over the train sta­tion in 1976 and cre­ated a visi­tors center that never drew crowds. In 1981, the Park Ser­vice shut­tered the visi­tors center and trans­ferred the site to the Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment. Union Sta­tion then un­der­went a $160 mil­lion re­fur­bish­ment fi­nanced by Am­trak, the Dis­trict gov­ern­ment and pri­vate money. It since has be­come one of the city’s most pop­u­lar tourist at­trac­tions.

Mr. Coburn said an eas­ier so­lu­tion would be to place a mora­to­rium on new park sites un­til the main­te­nance back­log is re­duced.

His 208-page re­port takes a hard look at some of the park prop­er­ties and how much use they are get­ting.

Mr. Coburn said more Amer­i­cans were struck by light­ning in 2012 than vis­ited Ani­akchak Na­tional Mon­u­ment in Alaska, which had just 19 visi­tors that year. In­deed, Alaska ac­counted for three of the six parks with the high­est cost per vis­i­tor in 2012, ac­cord­ing to the Coburn re­port fig­ures.

Even in ur­ban ar­eas, some park prop­er­ties get lit­tle use. The Thad­deus Kosciuszko Na­tional Me­mo­rial in Philadel­phia, a few blocks away from the Lib­erty Bell, had just 3,313 visi­tors in 2012.

The 1970s were par­tic­u­larly bad years for cre­at­ing Na­tional Park sites. Of the 25 least-vis­ited parks, nearly half came into be­ing in that decade.

The Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River, cre­ated in 1978, had a bud­get of $193,000 in 2012, which worked out to more than $319 for each of the 604 of­fi­cial visi­tors. Another 1978 park, the Thomas Stone Na­tional His­toric Site in Mary­land, costs tax­pay­ers $91 per vis­i­tor.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Visi­tors wait in line to en­ter Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s birth­place home in Hope, Ark., in 1998. A re­port states that the gov­ern­ment spends more than $33 for ev­ery one of the 24 daily visi­tors to the park mark­ing Mr. Clin­ton’s birth­place. The re­port con­cludes that Congress has cre­ated far more parks than the sys­tem can han­dle.

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