Plans Wilt at National Arboretum

Proposed Funding Cut Exacerbates Deterioration

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 26, 2008; Page A01

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.

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