The economic stimulus package sent $750 million to the National Park Service -- and is sparking debate over the agency's priorities.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provides $15 million for historic preservation, $146 million for deferred maintenance and "critical repair and rehabilitation projects," and $589 million for replacing facilities and equipment and cleaning abandoned mine sites, among other things.
But the law does not mention "natural resources," and that has some worried that the stimulus will be repairing park roads, rebuilding visitors centers and shoring up campgrounds. That would leave nothing for restoring wildlife habitat, tracking wildlife populations or battling invasive species.
Rita Beard, an invasive species expert at the service, said that while the agency has a backlog of infrastructure problems to address, natural resource infrastructure must be shored up, as well. For example, she said, no more than 3 percent of the 2.7 million acres of Park Service land infested by invasive plants is being treated.
Moreover, resource projects do meet the law's mandate of being "shovel-ready" to create jobs, Beard said. Pulling invasive weeds is "labor-intensive" and encourages young people to take up careers in natural resource management -- one of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's major priorities for stimulus spending, she said.
Beard said the lack of mention for natural resources could be due to an overly narrow understanding of the agency's purpose. She said that while it is easy to see other Interior agencies -- the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management, for example -- tending resources, many see NPS managing parks' visitors, not park resources.
National parks advocates were more critical.
"The National Park Service, quite frankly, should be embarrassed," said Eric Lane, director of the conservation services division for the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Natural resources are "why people go to national parks -- it's not to go see a washroom painted a new shade of green, it's to see moose walking through the meadow."
But NPS officials say such criticisms are premature. Agency spokesman Jeffrey Olson said no final allocations had been made yet and that a working group of officials from all levels and all areas of the service was drawing up a list of potential projects to be reviewed with input from Salazar. The list is due this month.
Every project, Olson said, would be judged in the light of Interior's three major initiatives for the stimulus: Improve energy efficiency and renewable energy use, involve youth in the recovery process, and bring jobs and money into local communities.
"I would expect that the largest commitment of the recovery act funding will be to projects that our infrastructure projects that are repair, rehabilitation, roads, but that's as particular of information that we have," Olson said.
Olson pointed to the law's mention of "historical resources," which he said opened to the door to natural resource management projects -- provided they comply with Salazar's directives.
If the law does not fund resource projects, Beard said, it is possible that there will not be money for them elsewhere. "I think the baseline budgets are going to be pretty tight for the next few years," she said.