WASHINGTON—The brochures are coming back to national parks. So are the park rangers, if President Bush has his way.
Park supporters say Bush's proposed federal budget for fiscal 2008 would make a big difference at the 390 federally owned parks, monuments and other sites controlled by the National Park Service. In an otherwise lean domestic budget, Bush wants to boost park funding by $230 million—the first installment in an ambitious plan to spend as much as $3 billion on America's natural treasures over the next 10 years.
Of course, first Congress must go along, and it's not clear that it will. The plan includes a controversial proposal to leverage federal funds with matching private donations.
Insiders see the influence of first lady Laura Bush, an avid hiker who visits a national park with her Texas pals at least once a year. She and the president will travel to Virginia's Shenandoah National Park on Wednesday to promote the parks-improvement plan.
"They've put a lot of new money on the table," said Ron Tipton, senior vice president for programs at the National Parks Conservation Association, a private group that pushes for more parks funding. "Every park in the system, for the first time ever, would get a real dollar increase. It would make a real difference."
Tipton said park visitors would see the results by the summer of 2008.
Harry Truman's former home would get new drapes. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park would get 55 more park rangers. Everglades National Park would be able to better protect its aquatic specimen collections.
The park service plans to hire 3,000 more park rangers and 44 additional volunteer coordinators. Some visitor centers would get extended hours. About $1 million would be used to make sure the park system has enough brochures.
Park service officials say the extra cash would also improve campgrounds, restroom cleanliness, trash removal and trail maintenance.
"People are smiling in the hallways here today," said Jeffrey Olson, a spokesman at the agency's Washington headquarters.
It's no secret that the parks have been squeezed for years. The addition of new national parks in the 1970s and the 1980s, coupled with an increase in visitors, strained parks across the country. The park system gets about 270 million visitors annually, including repeat visits.
As a presidential candidate in 2000, Bush pledged to eliminate the maintenance backlog, but his previous increases in the park service budget failed to meet the needs. Now Bush wants to try a new approach.
His 2008 budget includes $100 million for a new parks program that would match private contributions, dollar for dollar. The goal is to come up with $3 billion in public and private money by the time the park service celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2016.
Critics dismissed Bush's plan as a gimmick that seeks to avoid government responsibility for public land.
"Our national parks are national treasures, and their funding is a national responsibility," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. He called the funding plan "an illusion."
But Tipton, the parks advocate, thinks it could work—if Congress is willing to give it a try.
"I don't think it's pie in the sky," he said. "It will not be easy to find $100 million (in donations) every year, but I don't think it's an outrageous figure either."
And no one would be surprised if Laura Bush helps shake the money tree. She was the star attraction at a $1 million fundraiser last October for the National Park Foundation, a private group formed to raise money for the parks. Regan Gammon, one of the first lady's best friends and a hiking companion, serves on the foundation's board.
Laura Bush and her friends have been traveling to national parks every year since her 40th birthday 20 years ago. As first lady, she's hiked at Yosemite, Yellowstone, Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, Denali, Glacier, Olympic and Mesa Verde.
White House aides said they weren't sure how much influence she had on the budget, but there's no doubt that she approves of the plan.
"It's definitely something that has been personally important to her," said Susan Whitson, the first lady's spokeswoman. "It is definitely something that she cares about."
(EDITORS: To localize, see specific parks at http://home.nps.gov/applications/budget2/fy08toc.htm. Also, while OMB documents put Bush's park funding increase at $250 million above fiscal 2006 levels, the National Park Service says it's $230 million above a pending fiscal 2007 funding bill to be passed soon by Congress. We use the NPS figure.)