Is the Bush administration keeping its pledge to fix up deteriorated national parks? Is there enough funding to keep the park system properly staffed? What is the latest on the upcoming haze and visibility rules for cleaner air in the parks? On today's OnPoint, E&E Daily reporter Dan Berman and moderator Colin Sullivan ask National Park Service Director Fran Mainella about those issues, plus snowmobiles and off-road vehicles, Utah's claims to federal land and other concerns facing NPS.
Colin Sullivan: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Colin Sullivan. Our guest today is Fran Mainella, director of the National Park Service. Also with us is Interior reporter Dan Berman of E&E Daily and Greenwire. Director Mainella thanks for being here.
Fran Mainella: Well I'm glad to be here, particularly as we kick off the summer for our national parks.
Colin Sullivan: OK, well let's get right to it. In 2000, on the campaign trail, then Texas Governor George Bush campaigned against the Clinton administration for failing to act on a National Park Service maintenance backlog. It's five years later. He said he would eliminate the backlog within five years, that hasn't quite happened. Do you think it was a mistake to make that pledge?
Fran Mainella: Well, what the president has done is made a commitment to address an important issue for national parks. It's the least glamorous part of parks. In other words, what we're doing is repairing sewage systems, putting in electrical and plumbing, replacing restroom roofs and doing things that are really not the big ribbon cutting events, but we have addressed $4.9 billion, which is what I was familiar with that he was working with to try to make sure that we are really looking at our maintenance. And with the '06 budget passed, once it passes, we will have accomplished by the end of '06, that 4.9 billion. The roads piece though is very important. The federal highways bill is absolutely critical to us achieving that because more than half of all of our maintenance issues are roads and that is something that we're really trying to move forward with, with the new highway bill.
Colin Sullivan: Some of the critics, the former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, on the campaign trail for John Kerry last year, said that the Bush administration has failed to follow through with the necessary budget commitment to do something about this maintenance backlog and that's why you've switched from wanting to eliminate it to wanting to address it. Do you think that's a fair criticism? Have you changed your rhetoric to try to account for being unable to eliminate the backlog?
Fran Mainella: Again, when I came on as director in July of '01, it was always talked about as spending 4.9 billion to address the national, the maintenance, the backlog in the national parks. As a 40 year professional in parks and recreation, I know that maintenance is constantly evolving. Just for example, we had so many hurricanes last year that hit our national park system, particularly down in the Florida area and it becomes backlogged once it, usually it's about a year of the time where you are not able to get it fixed in that period of time. So it constantly evolves. It's a dynamic system. What we've been measuring though is instead of numbers, billions of dollars or things of that nature, we are working to do it more scientifically with a, what's called a "Facility's Condition Index," we know it as FCI and we're measuring what condition a building needs to be in order for it to be functional and save for our visitors. And the FCI is what we are trying to move towards starting at about 0.25, moving back down, incrementally down, hopefully eventually getting down to the low level, which is 0.10 and that's to be our measurement. It's to make sure that it's safe, enjoyable and in good condition in relation to the resources and we are making huge steps forward on that.
Dan Berman: So is there any timing on this? Is there, you know, at some point you can tell the American people that you know what the backlog is and that you have a schedule for addressing it?
Fran Mainella: Well right now we are expecting for the first time ever in the history of the National Park Service, and remember National Park Service is 88 years old, for the first time we're going to know all of the facilities we have in the system also what condition they're in. We're expecting to have that information completed, approximately by the end of '06 so that we'll have all that information to be able to share. Right now we're about two thirds of the way along and the cultural resource areas are the ones we're having to be more aggressive about over the next year's time.
Dan Berman: So when that's completed, will there be kind of a big push to increase spending on the backlog? The Congressional Resource Service still says that the backlog, that they peg it between 4.5 and 9.7 billion.
Fran Mainella: Well, what we're trying to do right now and you'll see that we're working on that, we've tripled the money in our budget since the time I started in '01 in what's called cyclic maintenance. That's the money that you spend to try to not get into the position of things that are really long-term backlogged where you have, it's been around for 15, 20 years. You want to, for example, when you build a structure you look at the roof. Is it a 20 year roof? If it is, that cyclic money is supposed to be that, starting out about 18 years out from the time you do the roof you are then using that money to plan to replace that roof before it goes into crisis. So that's what we're trying to do. So I think we've made a huge step forward. Again, depending on weather, depending on all the other factors that play in, we have made a huge step forward and having tripled that cyclic amount is really helping. If you talk, as you speak with our superintendents, they'll tell you that's really helping so much.
Dan Berman: OK. So kind of shifting gears a bit.
Fran Mainella: Right.
Dan Berman: Early last year there were some memos, internal park service memos that were released from regional directors suggesting that park superintendents take a look at some aspects of park operations, including possibly closing parks on federal holidays, closing some visitor centers in order to save money. You went before the House Appropriations Committee and said that the parks will remain open.
Fran Mainella: That's correct.
Dan Berman: They did. Will the parks be open and ready for visitors this year?
Fran Mainella: Yes, they will be open and ready to go. We've got the largest increase in the history of the National Park Service, took place in '05, and that's because of the president and Congress's leadership, where we received close to $97 million of new funding for our operations. Now the operations are the things that puts our people out to clean restrooms, to do the interpretive efforts and move us forward that way.
Dan Berman: Right, but the operations budget has increased every year for pretty much the past decade, but it still hasn't kept up with all the costs, especially with personnel and with pay increases.
Fran Mainella: Right.
Dan Berman: So there's still complaints that there aren't enough rangers out there, there aren't enough seasonal employees. Can you address that?
Fran Mainella: '05 was that big leap forward that we've made because if you remember I was in front of Congress a year or more ago where Congress did ask me, "You have the most money you've ever had. Why are you saying that some parks may have to have visitors hours changed and things of that nature?" Part of that is because we have lapsed, every time we get a raise, if Congress doesn't cover those fixed costs it sets our operations back and since 1994 we have not had 100 percent funding of our salary increases. As a result, it set us back approximately $120 million.
Colin Sullivan: If we could move on to air quality issues and national parks, about 30 percent of national parks right now, including Glacier National Park, Canyonlands in Grand Canyon National Park, are experiencing negative trends in air quality. Now EPA's way of dealing with this is the so-called Clean Air Interstate Rule, but it only applies to the East. It does not apply to the West. Do you think this rule should apply to the West, especially to address air quality issues in these national parks?
Fran Mainella: Let me just say that overall our air quality is improving in over 50 percent of our parks. Now we do have some, Great Smokies and others, that have, we do have major challenges in our air quality, but even Great Smokies did do better in last year's efforts. And what we're doing is working with our communities, looking out beyond our boundaries to make sure that we partner with some of the coal burning areas and things of that nature and talking with them to see how we can do better together to protect our park resources. Also, we personally, are taking action to be more green, as I call it, in the sense of using more hybrid buses, do more solar efforts. We're doing hydrogen fuel efforts and things like that that are much more environmentally friendly. The EPA has more of the knowledge on the overall bills that they're working on, but I know that we are making improvements and we're trying to do what's in our own capacity within the national parks to be able to do in improving our air quality with what we can do ourselves.
Colin Sullivan: Do you think that returning to natural visibility is an achievable goal going forward? I mean if you look, EPA says the visibility out West could be as far as 140 miles, in the East as far as 90 miles, the reality is visibility hovers between 33 to 90 miles in the West, 14 to 24 miles in the East. How big a problem is that for the National Park Service?
Fran Mainella: Well visibility of course is always an important part because when you go out, for example right here in the Washington, D.C., area, you go to Shenandoah National Park, part of your experience is looking out from the park way up to see the trees and the vegetation and experience those great overlooks. So it's very important to us and we would love to be able to see that visibility increase and we want to do all we can by working with EPA, by doing our own actions and working with states and local governments to better have them understand what something they may be doing, even just 50 miles away, may impact what the visibility is for our parks.
Colin Sullivan: I'm sort of curious how that happens. Do you actually meet with the EPA administrator to try to come up with a greener strategy? Because there's only --
Fran Mainella: We actually have partnerships with EPA and it particularly is more often my field people, like for example Jim Renfro out in, at Great Smokies, he's my air guy that's out there and he works directly with other agencies and private sector at Great Smokies to help better improve the air quality. So that linkages with EPA takes place that way, also when it's necessary then I make sure I make contact with EPA. What we have done though with our other land managers is we've actually formed a partnership where we meet regularly with them and probably might be a good idea to see if we can include EPA into that agreement.
Dan Berman: But I mean, meeting with EPA and meeting with the states doesn't necessarily solve all the problems. For example, there's the Roundup plant, outside of Yellowstone --
Fran Mainella: Right.
Dan Berman: And how do you deal with a plant or something like that it's moving forward kind of regardless?
Fran Mainella: Again, when it's appropriate for us, if it's a neighboring area, we look at it as an adverse impact or not. We are a regular landowner just like someone's home and others that made comments on those efforts. Of course our secretary has a great linkage with EPA and it's important for us to have her and we make sure she understands any of our concerns about air quality and have that conveyed. But again, personally, because I'm not a shy person I try to do all I can to link with the regional and other type leadership to make sure people understand what the needs are and how we can better work together.
Dan Berman: OK. Another issue that's come up with the park service recently is the off-road vehicles. There's been essentially a rise over the past 30 years in the number of off-road vehicles and yet the regulations and the laws haven't been updated since the '70s. What is the park service doing now in order to address this issue?
Fran Mainella: Well, as you know in our off-road vehicles what we have is a rule that you really aren't able to have them except where we have made rules that you're allowed to have them. So it's a little different than other land management agencies. Also, as a whole, I'm not sure we've been actually increasing. For example, what we just did out at Yellowstone, with the winter use, we actually were decreasing numbers of people doing temporary winter use and of course that's not, maybe an ORV, but it's still that motorized vehicle concept. We're also working, for example, at Cape Hatteras, which is one that we are having some further discussions on, is making sure that we protect the Piping Plover. We've been escorting people around those areas, if that's what's appropriate or looking at other options. Again, we're trying to, on a case by case basis, address what use takes place and we only allow it on a case by case basis.
Dan Berman: So it's going to be handled on a case by case basis from now on?
Fran Mainella: Yes.
Dan Berman: There's not going to be a kind of a national --
Fran Mainella: What's been the national and what, there's been the national rule, that's not changed. The national, I think it was executive order that declared no RV activities except where allowed back by each area and so what we're working with now is the areas that had already allowed it back in to see how we can make sure that's done, is environmentally friendly and continue to a evaluate it as we do even in personal watercraft.
Colin Sullivan: If we can move on to the roadless rule.
Fran Mainella: Sure.
Colin Sullivan: We're hitting on all the issues we can while we have you. I have a quote from an environmentalist that said, "Park visitors may wind up with front row seats to timber clear cuts." He's talking about collateral damage on national park land resulting from the roadless rule or from development including road building, logging or oil and gas drilling that's close to national parks. Have you looked at the roadless rule and what kind of collateral damage you might see in national parks?
Fran Mainella: Is this the 2477 issue that you're talking about?
Colin Sullivan: Right.
Fran Mainella: Of course, that does not apply to the national parks and so the department's made it very clear, the Department of Interior, is that they're not using, for example the example they had used out in Utah to apply to our national parks. So we are, obviously someone could still make application through the rules that are out there, but the Department of Interior wants to protect our national parks and make sure that new roads aren't created when it's not appropriate.
Dan Berman: Are you concerned that the state of Utah is going to challenge that in court and sue for control of some of these areas?
Fran Mainella: Well obviously the state of Utah has its rights to move forward in whatever way they feel appropriate, but I think we have, we're very good in our analysis and data to better be able to demonstrate that this was not a regular road and we will be trying to do all we can to demonstrate that. Now if it turns out that there is some substance and we will look at it further, but the bottom line is we're here to protect those resources, but also work with our states to have them better understand how we can maybe meet their needs in another way, but maybe not through a national park.
Dan Berman: What about the Forest Service's new roadless rule that replaced the Clinton-era plan? I realize it's on national forests and not in national parks --
Fran Mainella: Right.
Dan Berman: But there is some concern that as visitors go to national parks they'll see formerly roadless areas in the Forest Service that are now being clear cut and now being, where oil and gas development is happening. Is there any concern on your part or further actions?
Fran Mainella: Again, I think I'm not as familiar exactly what's happening on Forests Service lands. I do work with Dale Bosworth who is the chief of the U.S. Forest Service. We partner together frequently, but it is something that again, we will try to share what experiences they're going through and make sure that we understand so does not have a negative impact on our national parks.
Dan Berman: OK. I want to go back, you mentioned Yellowstone --
Fran Mainella: Yes.
Dan Berman: And the snowmobile issue. Both the House and Senate, in the appropriations bill for the Interior Department, have language that essentially guarantees the park service plan for this winter.
Fran Mainella: Correct.
Dan Berman: Allowing up to 720 snowmobiles per day.
Fran Mainella: Correct.
Dan Berman: How is it going with the evaluation of what's going to be the final plan, I guess, in 2006?
Fran Mainella: Again, we are using this as a method to evaluate and it was very interesting, again, I just want to clarify for all the viewers, that remember, the temporary plan that we're working off of it is putting snowmobiles that are best available technology, which is typically four cycle and even those are very restricted, to be able to go out with guides on the roads that we drive on in the summer.
Dan Berman: Right.
Fran Mainella: Not going wild every which way and then also with the speed limit and the guides have the ability to interact so that we're not having a negative impact with the bison. What we found is not only did it work so much, but I got letters from people who said to me, I was opposed to having any snowmobiles out there. I'm a cross-country skier and said that, you know, this has made the world of difference. The noise quality is down, the sound, but of course we're doing the science measuring now.
Dan Berman: Well, but wasn't that a result of the fact that ridership essentially was down. The figures I have were about 240, 250 snowmobiles per day were using it, but the increase came in visitors using snow coaches.
Fran Mainella: That's correct.
Dan Berman: Isn't that kind of the way to the future at this point?
Fran Mainella: Well overall the visitation was down last year because we didn't have a snowy winter last year and as a result you can't send machines out on the snow, so we'll get a better evaluation this year, but yes, we're excited. Remember, we helped design a new snow coach that we're using and with that design, it's one that better tracks in the snow and also has it so that you're able to see out, the windows are heated and don't steam up as in the old experiences. I don't know if you've gone out there, I've gone out on the old snow coaches and this new experience is really so much more enjoyable. And I think more and more people are enjoying that and choosing it as a way that they can enjoy the environment and get out there to be able to connect up to, you know, to see Old Faithful.
Dan Berman: OK. You mentioned kind of the lack of snow --
Fran Mainella: Right.
Dan Berman: Over this past winter. Do you think the ridership level is an accurate barometer of the interest?
Fran Mainella: I think that I need to see it this year. Now that people know that people are allowed to be out there and that there is, hopefully, enough snow this year, because it also helps us on our fire issues to have enough snow out there, is to be able to get a better measure. And again, going towards the more permanent rule, we're going to be taking the data, including air quality, you know all of our measurements, remember we're doing all these measurements that are going on right now, to better be able to decide what is safe and we will not do something that is going to negatively impact both the bison or the resources of the air quality.
Colin Sullivan: Well, we're just about out of time. One last question, have you given any thought to your personal future beyond the National Park Service? Are you going to be there for the next three years?
Fran Mainella: I'm expecting to be here for the next three years, in fact, I'll be one of the, hopefully, one of the longest tenured National Park Service directors other than George Hartzog, who's a good friend of mine, who goes back to the 1960s. Even before my position being presidential appointment, most folks have stayed two to three and a half years. I've already been here four and going into my fifth year and looking forward to being here for some time to come. I love our national parks. I love our great employees, and I love all our partners that we work with. We do have challenges, but we're going forth to meet them, and I really appreciate you allowing me to be with you today.
Colin Sullivan: Great. Fran Mainella I hope you come back.
Fran Mainella: Thanks so much, I really appreciate it.
Dan Berman: Thank you.
Fran Mainella: Thanks.
Colin Sullivan: Join us tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint. Until then I'm Colin Sullivan for E&ETV.
[End of Audio]