NATIONAL PARKS:

Proposed construction cuts test GOP senator's support for land buys

A Republican senator and key supporter of Interior Department land acquisitions yesterday criticized the National Park Service for failing to address a growing backlog of maintenance projects and argued funding might need to be shifted from climate change or other agency programs.

While Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said he continues to support the Land and Water Conservation Fund -- a cornerstone of the Obama administration's Great Outdoors initiative and the primary means of acquiring new federal lands -- he warned that the Park Service's proposal to boost acquisition funding would be a tough sell in a fiscally conservative Congress.

Burr, who is the ranking member on the Senate National Parks Subcommittee, also questioned whether the Park Service's proposed $138 million funding increase for fiscal 2012 is fair considering the sacrifices other federal agencies are being expected to make.

Burr took issue with the agency's proposed $152 million in construction spending, an $81 million cut from current levels and far below the $325 million agency officials have said would be needed each year just to keep pace with a maintenance backlog that exceeds $10 billion.

"With all due respect, it borders on mismanagement of this asset to suggest we've got six years' worth of critical infrastructure needs and those infrastructure needs are not in the budget," Burr told NPS Director Jon Jarvis during a budget hearing. "That may mean that the secretary's climate change initiative gets defunded for a year, or it may mean that there's another aspect within the Park Service that we draw down."

Burr, who was the lone Republican last Congress to co-sponsor a proposal by Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) to provide full permanent funding for LWCF, did not specify whether land acquisition funding should be reduced, but he did suggest the Park Service consider land exchanges instead of paying for new lands.

While practical in some cases, land exchanges typically require separate approval of Congress and are not acceptable in some national parks, such as Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, Jarvis said.

Jarvis said the construction cuts were made possible in part because of Congress' approval of $750 million in stimulus funding for visitor service projects, trail improvements and plant maintenance. The money, which has been fully obligated, was "an extraordinarily great investment" and has supported more than 800 projects, Jarvis said.

Burr remained skeptical and asked Jarvis whether he believed Congress would provide another "$750 million genie" in the future.

The agency is ensuring land acquisitions do not add to the maintenance backlog by razing buildings and nonhistoric structures it acquires as part of the purchases, Jarvis said.

Alan Rowsome, director of conservation funding for the Wilderness Society, said the acquisitions can also help create management savings and efficiencies by eliminating boundaries and reducing law enforcement problems, among other benefits.

"They can actually save a lot of money by doing the right acquisitions projects," he said, echoing an argument Jarvis has made in past weeks.

Pressed by Burr, Jarvis also defended the agency's proposed $2.3 billion operations budget, an increase of roughly $35 million. He said every dollar invested in operations generates $4 in economic benefits and added that the agency saw a bump in visitors last year as families tightened budgets and took advantage of low-cost vacation opportunities at parks.

"People were not going to Europe. They were doing staycations, they were doing shorter vacations, they were going to national parks," he said. "On the operational side of the NPS house, I personally think that's a good investment."

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