Move to study privatizing park service jobs halted

Tacoma News Tribune
Mcclatchy News Service


WASHINGTON - The House of Representatives on Thursday temporarily froze Bush administration plans to study how private companies might compete for jobs at Mount Rainier and other national parks.

In a victory for parks advocates and government employees, lawmakers blocked National Park Service privatization studies in 2004 as part of a big public lands spending bill. The bill funds several projects, but the prospect of turning park jobs over to the private sector has excited the most controversy.

The bill must now must be reconciled with a measure approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee that endorses so-called "competitive outsourcing" at national parks.

White House officials have said private-sector workers could save money and improve efficiency, but opponents of the plan say only park service employees can properly protect and respect the nation's natural treasures.

Parks advocates praised Thursday's action in the House.

"This is an enormous victory for our national parks and for millions of park visitors," Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement.

Kiernan called on Senate leaders to likewise fight for national parks "and not allow the administration to put the stewardship of our national heritage in the hands of the lowest bidder."

A spokeswoman for Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Bellevue) said Thursday's action means no privatization studies will take place at Mount Rainier National Park in fiscal year 2004, which begins in October.

Mount Rainier had planned to spend roughly $250,000 to study whether as many as 70 of the park's 112 federal employees could be replaced with contract workers. The 70 were among 1,708 Park Service positions nationwide scheduled to undergo privatization review next year.

"This is a guarantee right now that Mount Rainier will not be studied in 2004," said Dunn spokeswoman Danielle Holland. "This is an assurance that they are excluded from the list."

The $19.6 billion bill funding the Interior Department and Forest Service for fiscal 2004 was set to be approved by the House on Thursday night. It is one of 13 bills that keep the federal government running and the money flowing to hometown projects.

These must-pass appropriations measures also become magnets for policy disputes. That's what happened with the Interior Department bill Thursday, which stops new privatization studies from taking place in fiscal year 2004.

An amendment to strip the language, and thus let the privatization studies continue, was discussed but not offered. Washington Reps. Norm Dicks (D-Belfair) and Brian Baird (D-Vancouver) spoke on the House floor to express concern about the privatization push.

About 850,000 federal jobs already have been identified as being "commercial" in nature and therefore potentially ripe for going private. First, federal officials must conduct studies that cost several thousand dollars for each job evaluated.

"This massive initiative appears to be on such a fast track that the Congress and the public are neither able to participate nor understand the costs and implications of the decisions being made," the powerful House Appropriations Committee stated in its bill report.

The Bush administration contends many government jobs - like fee collecting, lawn mowing and building maintenance - could be more efficiently handled by for-profit companies.

McClatchy Washington D.C. bureau reporter Michael Doyle and News Tribune reporter Skip Card contributed to this report.


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