An Infusion for a Wilting Institution

Paving stones near the arboretum gift shop show their wear and tear.
Paving stones near the arboretum gift shop show their wear and tear. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2008

Stopgap congressional funding has saved the U.S. National Arboretum from cutting hours, staff and programs for now, but financial woes continue at the 446-acre botanical park in Northeast Washington.

"The arboretum is safe in the short term, though the long-term prognosis is not good," said Jeanne Connelly, board chairman of the Friends of the National Arboretum.

The arboretum's parent agency, the Agricultural Research Service, had called for a $2 million, or 60 percent, cut in the arboretum's money for public programs and care of its plant displays and collections. This was part of a $84 million cut proposed for the agency, the scientific research arm of the Department of Agriculture, which would have led to the closing of 11 research centers across the country and cutbacks at the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville.

But Congress came to the rescue Saturday, giving final approval for the agency's funding at last year's levels, $1.12 billion, until March 6.

Arboretum Director Thomas S. Elias had prepared a plan that would have cut 20 positions from a staff of 76, closed the arboretum on weekends and removed some plant collections.

With the interim funding, "we are not reducing our staff and are actively filling some of the vacancies," Elias said. He said he expects to fill "seven or eight" positions, and start to address deferred maintenance at the administration building.

Still, Elias and Connelly said, even the interim funding represents a cut when increased costs of energy, goods, pay and other expenses are taken into account. Continued flat funding has resulted in an effective 20 percent cut in the operating budget over five years. In addition, an eight-year-old, $61 million master plan remains unfunded. The plan would fix crumbling infrastructure, allow new buildings and gardens and create a more visible entrance to the arboretum at Bladensburg Road.

Connelly said the arboretum "has the smallest budget by far" of large botanical gardens across the nation, and the friend's group is considering asking Congress to support funding a study to evaluate the institution's future. Among the options board members are pondering are placing the arboretum directly under the secretary of agriculture, or some other public entity such as the Smithsonian Institution or the Architect of the Capitol, which controls the U.S. Botanic Garden.

"We want go look at the pros and cons before going to Congress," she said.

Meanwhile, a stalled project to build a world-class Chinese garden at the arboretum has been revived. The Chinese government has offered to construct and furnish the multimillion-dollar garden if the arboretum designs and builds the infrastructure. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer has given the green light to form a committee to shepherd the project through the forthcoming change in administration and to solicit private donations to help pay for the design costs.

As envisioned, the garden would have Chinese pavilions, courtyards and rock work. "They're shipping it over here and sending artisans to assemble it," Elias said. "We are responsible for the site work, the foundation and utilities and maintaining it once it's built."

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