By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
When the wayward Cessna approached the White House last week, the president was out riding his mountain bike on the winding trails of Patuxent Research Refuge, 12,790 acres of woods and ponds where endangered whooping cranes live, migratory birds make their pit stops, and hikers, hunters and bird-watchers spend their leisure hours.
But don't expect to follow President Bush's example in the late afternoon or evening, or on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July or any other national holiday, because the same president who repairs to Patuxent for his recreation has saddled the refuge with budget cuts that have forced a sharp reduction in its public opening hours and other services.
Even as the refuge faces sharply rising energy costs and deferred maintenance demands, the facility has been hit with a 2 percent midyear budget cut, a decline in staffing and steadily increasing responsibilities, including post-9/11 mandates that it hire more law enforcement officers.
"It's been a pretty stressful, trying year here because we just don't have the resources to maintain the facilities," says refuge director Brad Knudsen. "We're definitely in a downward trend."
"It's a good thing that the president didn't arrive for his ride after 4 o'clock, because that's when they have to close now," says Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, a nonprofit in Georgetown that lobbies for the country's 545 wildlife preserves. "National parks are seeing significant increases in funding, while the refuges are cut year after year, making it harder for millions of Americans to use them for fishing, hunting and bird-watching."
The president bikes on Patuxent's Central Tract, which is not open to public visits, but rather serves as home to scientists who conduct experiments on soil and animals. To save money on staffing, Patuxent's 20 miles of trails on its North Tract now close four hours earlier, an especially tough blow for fishermen whose only access to a prime fishing pond had been during those later hours (it's closed during the day because it's next to a National Security Agency shooting range).
Two of the scientists' major facilities at Patuxent have been shuttered recently because the refuge lacked money to maintain the buildings, Knudsen says. One closed facility, Stickel Laboratory, became famous as the site of the studies on the pesticide DDT that inspired Rachel Carson's classic work of environmental journalism, "Silent Spring."
"The building had so many failing systems that we really had no choice but to shut it," Knudsen says.
To make its budget, Patuxent also has ended its long-standing Boy and Girl Scout camping programs
Bush has used Patuxent, east of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, for bike-riding jaunts for several years, according to volunteers and staffers. Knudsen says he is not permitted to comment on the visits.
Some scientists on the site grumble that they are required by Secret Service agents to vacate their laboratories when the president is coming.
But what volunteers and staffers find most galling is the disconnect between the president's personal behavior and his administration's policies. A coalition of refuge supporters across the ideological divide -- including the National Rifle Association, the Audubon Society and 18 other environmental, hunting, fishing and birding groups -- has pressed the government to pull wildlife refuges out of a situation so dire that about 200 refuges have no staff at all, and a majority have so few workers that a backlog of more than $2 billion in maintenance projects has developed.
Now, "the system is facing cuts of 300 staff positions in the next year," Hirsche says -- a loss of one in 10 slots.
The sight of Bush pedaling through the Central Tract has struck even some of his political critics as sad -- the image of a man being taken in his security cocoon into a park swept clear of other human beings just so he can ride a bike drives home the old line about there being no lonelier job than the presidency.
"You almost feel sorry for the guy," says refuge volunteer Sue Darcey. "Except that if he understands the need for recreation, how about funding the refuges so we can all go biking in the woods?"
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