Interior chief defends policies

MELANTHIA MITCHELL; The Associated Press
The News Tribune


Interior Secretary Gale Norton outlined the Bush administration's national park improvements Thursday and responded to critics who say the administration hasn't done enough.

"Some critics give the impression that the national parks are in dire condition because they lack funds," Norton told hundreds of lawmakers attending a three-day meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council in Seattle. "The reality is that, compared to other nondefense federal agencies, the Park Service has received large increases in funding over the past 25 years."

The Park Service's operations budget of $1.8 billion is 20 percent higher than when George Bush took office, she said.

She said Bush has committed to investing $4.9 billion to eliminate the park maintenance backlog the administration inherited in 2001. As part of that commitment, he has made it a priority to preserve facilities and natural resources in national parks - a system that covers 84 million acres - as well as protect and enhance visitor and employee safety.

She said National Park employees have undertaken or completed 4,000 park projects across the country, and visitors are seeing improved trails and roads, more accessible campgrounds and reduced environmental threats because of better sewer and water systems.

"The political temptation with national parks is to grab headlines by creating lots of new parks," Norton said. "We decided that instead of generating ribbon-cutting ceremonies, we should take care of what we already have."

Critics weren't buying that assessment, saying the national parks are in poor condition and that Norton has offered no new solutions.

"Instead of solving the problem, she's just being defensive about it," said Heather Weiner, northwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association.

The association has said the Park Service since 2001 has spent only $662 million in new money to reduce a backlog of maintenance needs, while the rest of the money is going to repairs that do not ease the backlog.

Weiner said national parks in Washington state, like those across the country, have struggled with fewer seasonal rangers and interpretive programs because of insufficient funding.

She said staff numbers at Crater Lake in Oregon are down by about a third since 2002, while at Olympic National Park only about 25 seasonal rangers were hired this year, compared with 130 in 2001.



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