Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton defended yesterday her department's handling of National Park Service funding, releasing a report showing that unprecedented levels of funding have been allocated to the agency this year.
Tensions have been mounting between Interior and such groups as the National Parks Conservation Association and the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees over the issue of financing the parks system. The two groups contend that a growing number of parks have been forced to deal with chronic annual budget shortfalls.
Earlier this year, a report by the National Parks Conservation Association estimated that the national parks are receiving two-thirds of the funding they require, leading to understaffing and the deterioration of facilities.
The latest Interior report says that this year's Park Service operations budget of $1.8 billion represents a 20 percent increase since the Bush administration took office. It says more than 4,000 improvement projects are planned or underway to reduce the park maintenance backlog.
"The budget has more funds per employee, per acre and per visitor than at any time in the history of the National Park Service," Norton said at a news conference. "We are spending more, and we are spending it more wisely."
"President Bush is meeting his commitment to invest $4.9 billion to address the national park maintenance backlog," she said. "The 4,000 projects will enhance visitors' experiences and improve management in all 49 states that have parks."
Funding for preservation programs has nearly tripled and law enforcement budgets are up by 23.5 percent, according to the Interior report. The number of National Park Service employees will stand at 20,637 in 2005, a rise of 829 since 2000, it says.
Norton did not convince the critics, however. Tom Martin, executive vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said the agency has spent only $662 million in new funding to cut the backlog.
"Secretary Norton believes that the national parks are in a better condition today than they were three years ago, but the proof otherwise is in the parks themselves," he said.
Bill Wade, a spokesman for the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees, challenged the report's findings, saying the increased funding is not trickling down to individual parks.
"While the current appropriation from Congress is the largest ever for the NPS, the actual dollars reaching parks is declining," he said. "The reality is that the Bush administration budgets have resulted in a decline in total NPS employment, 85 percent of parks receiving less money this year than last, an unaddressed $600 million NPS operating deficit and a growing maintenance backlog problem at the parks."
Norton acknowledged that there are problems within the parks system, but she said the agency is working at resolving them.
"In a system as extensive and complex as the 84 million acres of the national parks system, there are some parks that have challenges," she said. "People can go to the parks and find things that may be less than perfect. We're halfway through our five-year program to improve the parks, so not everything has been fixed yet."