Politics & Government

Public, private money announced for Yosemite

WASHINGTON — More public and private dollars will be flowing to Yosemite National Park under a first-of-its-kind effort unveiled Thursday.

In a carefully staged outdoor Capitol Hill ceremony, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne pinpointed Yosemite and 75 other national parks as among the initial recipients in a program matching federal funds with private contributions. Yosemite benefits more than most.

The park's famous Tunnel View Overlook will be rehabilitated. A new Junior Ranger center will start in Yosemite Valley. Plants and animals will be researched. Throughout San Joaquin Valley schools, students will be getting scholarships to spend a week in the park.

"We made the cut!" enthused Jason Morris, vice president of the Yosemite National Institutes. "I'm delighted. These kids couldn't otherwise have the opportunity to go to the national parks."

The non-profit Yosemite National Institutes raised $750,000 from companies such as Intel and charitable groups such as the Stewart Foundation. This money will now be matched with $750,000 from the federal government.

The $1.5 million total will enable 10,000 schoolchildren to participate in week-long programs held in Yosemite and Olympic national parks and at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Yosemite-bound students are typically San Joaquin Valley and East Los Angeles residents between the ages of 10 and 15; their park service scholarships are based on a sliding scale pegged to income.

"We've been waiting for this," Morris said.

The Yosemite scholarship program is among 110 overall projects funded through what Kempthorne has styled the "National Park Service Centennial Challenge." The basic idea is to combine public and private spending as a lead-up to the park service's 100th anniversary in 2016.

"These centennial projects will serve as the cornerstones of the improvements at the parks -- projects to help ignite another 100 years of excellence throughout the National Park Service," Kempthorne declared.

The program, though, is not nearly as big as Kempthorne once envisioned, nor are all the serious political questions yet resolved. It did not go unnoticed among park service professionals Thursday that a number of projects were located in districts served by key lawmakers.

Himself a former member of Congress, Kempthorne originally proposed that Congress provide an additional $100 million annually for the national parks, with the federal dollars equally matched by corporate or other private contributions. In anticipation, parks nationwide developed wish lists.

Lawyers and auditors then raised sticky questions about how to manage the combined public and private dollars. Congress only provided $24.6 million for the first year. Even when matched with private contributions, that forced park officials to curtail project proposals.

House Democratic leaders -- including some who stood side-by-side with Kempthorne on the Capitol steps Thursday -- also have different ideas about funding. One alternative Democratic bill, for instance, would not require matching private contributions.

The House Resources Committee will be taking up the park funding question in early May.

"The current state of our park system is deeply troubling," stressed the committee chairman, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.

Other new projects unveiled Thursday include:

-- $268,126, evenly divided between public and private dollars, for a Yosemite Fund project to establish a Junior Ranger Center and education program at the park's popular Happy Isles location.

-- $200,000, evenly divided between public and private dollars, for a Yosemite Fund project focusing on investigating plant and animal species.

-- $3 million to rehabilitate what officials termed the "iconic" Tunnel View Overlook. The work will range from improving wheelchair access to increasing the size of the viewing area. Of the total spending, $1.33 million would be federal dollars and $1.67 million would be provided by the Yosemite Fund.

-- $100,000, evenly divided between public funds and contributions from the Sequoia Parks Foundation, for a "Rangers in the Classroom" program designed to reach minority students.