$216 million pledged for national parks -- if Congress matches funds

A full moon provides a picturesque evening in Yosemite National Park in California on February 11, 2006. (Ryan Huff/Contra Costa Times/MCT)
A full moon provides a picturesque evening in Yosemite National Park in California on February 11, 2006. (Ryan Huff/Contra Costa Times/MCT) Ryan Huff/Contra Costa Times

WASHINGTON — A first-of-its-kind pledge drive has secured promises of $216 million to help pay for hundreds of projects at national parks.

Corporations, nonprofits and wealthy individuals, among others, have all lined up to contribute to the program being unveiled Thursday at Yosemite National Park. The dollars would fund everything from restoring beat-down meadows to rehabilitating old buildings.

"This is money that people are falling all over themselves to give to us," National Park Service spokesman David Barna said Wednesday.

But there's a catch.

The "partnership" pledges being announced by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and National Park Service Director Mary Bomar first require Congress to kick in an additional $100 million. Together, the federal and non-federal funding would initiate what the Bush administration calls the park service's "centennial challenge."

The proposed matching-fund program would raise $3 billion between now and the National Park Service's centennial in 2016, under the Bush administration plan. The laboriously choreographed event Thursday, including a late-morning hike to Yosemite Falls, marks Kempthorne's first visit to Yosemite as well as the first public disclosure of the pledges made so far.

"This shows that if we provide matching dollars, there are a lot more dollars we can get for the parks," Yosemite Superintendent Mike Tollefson said Wednesday. "It shows there is a definite interest in the public to make this happen."

A veteran ranger who previously served at Denali National Park and as superintendent at Great Smoky Mountains and Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, Tollefson spent the last several months in Washington working on the partnership program.

Officials at every park submitted potential projects for inclusion in a detailed database. They also had to present written pledges of financial support, which would be triggered once Congress acts. The park service wouldn't release the list of requests Wednesday.

But Yosemite, for instance, proposes joining with the private Yosemite Fund to make improvements around the extremely popular area known as the "tunnel view," Tollefson told McClatchy Newspapers.

The park also proposes collaborating with the private Yosemite Institute to improve educational programs serving minorities and the underprivileged.

"Yosemite has a heck of a lot of projects," Tollefson said.

In many cases, as with the Yosemite Fund, parks are already receiving assistance from the partners now offering designated "centennial challenge" pledges. Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Grand Canyon and a number of other national parks already have individual park foundations.

About 64 percent of the pledged funds come from nonprofit partners, Tollefson said.

In other cases, park officials were able to secure new sources of money. About 3 percent of the total pledges came from corporations, 1 percent from individuals and the rest from state and local governments.

"Matching funds ... introduce a lot of energy and excitement into the donor marketplace," noted Anne Malek, spokeswoman for the National Park Foundation, which Congress chartered in 1967 to raise funds for parks.

So far, Congress is wrestling with how the parks program might work, and congressional Democrats differ from the White House in key areas. Lawmakers, for instance, propose offsetting the added federal parks spending with higher fees for commercial use of public land. Bomar called the higher fees "unacceptable."

The White House and some lawmakers also differ on the significance of the matching funds. The White House's version, introduced by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, would only fund projects for which both federal and partnership dollars were provided. Competing bills wouldn't require the same kind of matching contributions.

Skeptics, moreover, worry about what new park donors might expect in return for their dollars.

"It is hard not to be suspicious of the motives of the giving organizations, and ... the quid pro quo expected from and sometimes provided by the recipient organization," former park ranger Bill Wade, chair of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, warned in a House hearing earlier this month.