Plans Wilt at National Arboretum
Proposed Funding Cut Exacerbates Deterioration

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 26, 2008

It began last weekend and will continue for five more, Washington's other springtime blossom festival. At the U.S. National Arboretum in Northeast Washington, 130,000 people will show up to luxuriate in the rhododendrons, crab apples and early roses before Memorial Day.

The highlight is the peak flowering of 12,000 mature azaleas that paint a wooded hill named Mount Hamilton in pinks, reds and magentas. But the arboretum's prospects are far less rosy.

Next year's proposed budget for the federally funded institution has been cut by $2 million, targeted at the arboretum's public face. The amount is small in the scheme of things, but it would reduce funding by 60 percent for the arboretum's public programming and the care of its rich garden displays and pioneering plant collections.

This comes after almost a decade of funding erosion: The operating budget has shrunk 20 percent in five years. A master plan to fix crumbling infrastructure and forge a future has remained essentially unfunded for eight years. Even if next year's money is restored, the arboretum will continue to suffer from years of chronic underfunding and the absence of capital investment.

Members of the Friends of the National Arboretum, a largely volunteer support group, say the reductions would force closure on weekends, when 70 percent of the visitors come; curtail classes, tours and exhibits; close part of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, with its world-class display of miniature trees; and abandon important plant collections cultivated for decades.

"The arboretum can not be maintained as the National Arboretum with this dramatic budget cut," said William Inglee, a member of the FONA board, which is lobbying Congress to have the reductions reversed.

Arboretum Director Thomas Elias said he is looking at reducing staff by about 20 slots , from 76 full-time positions. He declined to release details, saying it has yet to be approved by the arboretum's bosses at the Agriculture Department.

Supporters of the arboretum say the cuts threaten more than the park: The arboretum is an essential part of plans to revitalize the District's east end and clean up the Anacostia River. The 446-acre botanical park occupies a vast and strategic tract, bounded by the Anacostia and the major arteries of New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road. Along with the Langston Golf Course, the Anacostia River Park and the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, it is part of an 850-acre green space, half the size of Rock Creek Park.

"All the planning has not only assumed the arboretum, but has been around the arboretum," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who is working with Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) to restore the budget.

The planning includes Arbor Place, a proposed $1.1 billion development of condos and shops on 16 acres at New York and Bladensburg, an area now marked by service stations, used-car lots and decrepit warehouses.

"I don't know that many cities that have 450 acres of pristine land," said Eric Price, senior vice president of Abdo Development, which is building Arbor Place. "One of the reasons we wanted to build this neighborhood is to make that connection to the arboretum . . . D.C.'s Central Park, if you will."

Sandy Miller Hays, a spokeswoman for the arboretum's parent agency, the Agriculture Research Service, said it is responding to a $84 million reduction in its funding, and the arboretum is just one of many casualties. "These are tough times for the ARS," she said.

The agency has proposed closing 11 research centers, including one on soil management in Morris, Minn., subtropical agriculture in Brooksville, Fla., and watershed management in University Park, Pa. Units within larger operations might disappear, including the Animal Biosciences and Biotechnology Lab at Beltsville, which employs 37 scientists and staff. The National Agricultural Library in Beltsville is losing $3 million.

Cold comfort to supporters of the arboretum, who say the National Arboretum is a neglected jewel that deserves to be enhanced as a cultural asset but instead is barely surviving.

"I don't think they understand the true value of it," said D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5).

The nation's arboretum in the nation's capital should be the best of its kind, said Inglee, but "things are just getting totally run-down."

Innovation Interrupted

The arboretum was established by Congress in 1927 as a center of horticultural research and display under the Agriculture Department.

Growers planted collections of promising plants for breeding and developed stands of flowering trees and shrubs: hollies, magnolias, crab apples, lilacs. Many still exist, including rare species whose genes have yet to be tapped.

The azalea display is the work of the first director, B.Y. Morrison, who devoted his life to raising hybrids that would have the large flowers of Southern varieties but the hardiness to survive mid-Atlantic winters. His Glenn Dale hybrids changed the face of Washington and its suburbs. Morrison's successors created improved versions of crape myrtles, viburnums and winter-hardy camellias, to name a few.

Other displays have been developed: The Capitol Columns is a monumental arrangement of Corinthian columns left as surplus from a U.S. Capitol expansion. The National Herb Garden displays herbs, heirloom roses and old boxwood. The Asian Collections contain plants brought to the West from China, Japan and KoreaFern Valley offers a woodland floor covered in rare and choice native plants, including Virginia bluebells, trilliums and ragwort now in flower.

For FONA member Sally Boasberg, signs of decline are in almost every corner. The Friendship Garden, planted almost 20 years ago in naturalistic perennials and grasses, is in need of renewal. Elias said that cannot proceed until flooding problems in the adjoining building can be fixed, but that's unfunded.

The administration building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is "in very bad shape," Boasberg said. The heating and air-conditioning system hasn't been upgraded in the almost 50 years since the building opened.

The arboretum's extensive asphalt road network is crumbling in places, and the formal walled Morrison Garden is cracking and subsiding. Many areas suffer from soil erosion, particularly the paths in the Asian Collections.

Driving past an open field, Boasberg pointed out the location of a proposed Chinese garden, on hold. "The Chinese are giving it, but the arboretum is supposed to maintain it," she said, and "we don't have the money to maintain what we have."

Also stalled is the eight-year-old master plan that provides a framework of modernization and growth. The plan calls for new footpaths linking the central gardens, a visitors and conference center, a 1,000-car parking lot, the infrastructure repairs and creation of an entrance off Bladensburg Road to replace the hazardous entrance on New York Avenue and an obscure one off R Street.

The cost was put at $61 million eight years ago. The D.C. Department of Transportation built the entrance in 2005 for $500,000, but a lack of funding mothballed the project and today the intersection leads to nowhere. "We certainly would like to see them complete their plans," DOT spokeswoman Karyn Le Blanc said, "but we have done everything we can do."

Generosity's Bounds

Compared with other major botanical gardens, the National Arboretum has a smaller staff and less funding. It also draws fewer visitors, and FONA members say that if it were fully funded and polished, it would attract larger crowds. The U.S. Botanic Garden at the foot of the Capitol, reopened in 2001 after major renovation, now attracts nearly a million visitors, up from 750,000.

The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., has 202 full-timers and a $23.6 million operating budget, compared with 76 and $12 million for the arboretum. Morton draws 735,000 visitors a year; the arboretum, 480,000. Last year, FONA raised $388,000, which includes an annual $110,000 payment from a trust established by a deceased member to pay for the upkeep of Asian Valley and a $90,000 donation by HSBC Bank. Another member bequeathed $783,000 for construction of the Flowering Tree Walk.

Inglee, a vice president of Lockheed Martin, said it is difficult to ask corporations and charities to join funding partnerships when the arboretum's owner is cutting back. "You can do it for small things, but you're not going to get private donors to do major things if they see the owners of the institution really aren't committed to it," he said.

"It could be so much more," said Dan Stark, executive director of the American Public Gardens Association. "If the federal government embraced it and took ownership as the true national treasure it could be, it would be a much more vibrant institution."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company