National Park Service employees failed to take advantage Friday of a golden opportunity to seize control of the agency: Director Fran Mainella and her two deputies were all out of the office, according to the agency's daily schedule.

Mainella apparently was out on personal leave -- though available on BlackBerry. Deputy Director Steve Martin was in Arizona attending public hearings on Grand Canyon overflights, and Deputy Director Don Murphy was traveling with an Interior Department/Park Service "delegation to meet with David Mabunda [head of South Africa's national parks] and tour Kruger National Park," the schedule said. There was also a world heritage convention in South Africa.

But budget skies seem to be clearing. A year ago, Mainella was hammered by Republicans and Democrats on the House Appropriations subcommittee for budget shortfalls that were forcing cutbacks in park hours, guided tours and such -- euphemistically labeled "service-level adjustments" -- to save money.

The lawmakers were especially rippin' about agency travel expenses of more than $44 million. Mainella pledged to suspend almost all foreign travel, impose a 10 percent cutback on domestic travel and try teleconferencing rather than travel. "And if we need more, we'll do more," she said.

But Mainella, who had pledged to visit all 388 units of the national park system, continued a breakneck travel schedule in the months after that testimony, according to the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Mainella said yesterday that she has visited 205 parks and will continue, budget permitting, though she's flying solo these days, no entourage. International travel is down 70 percent this year, and domestic travel is down 29 percent, she said.

And then there was Murphy's visit last week to South Africa's big-game country. The National Park Service has an international program that requires some travel abroad, a spokesman noted.

Of course, that, in turn, naturally requires members of Congress, in their oversight capacity, to fly occasionally to the big-game parks to review what the NPS folks did.

Now Hear This

Mark your calendars! Time magazine White House correspondent Matthew Cooper heads a panel of witnesses testifying Wednesday morning at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Others scheduled to appear are Cooper's boss, Time Editor in Chief Norman Pearlstine and University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone.

The hearing is titled "Reporters' Shield Legislation: Issues and Implications." Cooper should attract a fairly good crowd. But if committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) were to have New York Times reporter Judith Miller testify on a video hookup from the Alexandria Detention Center . . .

Art in the National Interest

Art aficionados at the new Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in Manhattan -- which shows the links between Mapplethorpe's work and that of 16th- and 17th-century artists -- should thank the State Department, specifically C. Miller Crouch, principal deputy assistant secretary for educational and cultural affairs, for making it all possible.

A recent Federal Register notice says Crouch deemed the older works, on loan from Russia's Hermitage, "of cultural significance" and the "exhibition or display" of them at the Guggenheim Museum in "the national interest."

But a Mapplethorpe show? In the national interest? Wasn't this the guy who caused that huge ruckus back in 1989 when protests on the Hill forced the Corcoran Gallery of Art to cancel a show of Mapplethorpe's homoerotic and violent images? What is the State Department doing?

Well, seems that back in the 1960s, lenders did not want to send over Russian art for fear that exiles here would claim ownership and have the works seized for years pending the outcome of any litigation. So Congress passed a law barring such seizures if the State Department deemed the foreign imports were worthy.

Besides, one source said, the more "out there" Mapplethorpe stuff is not in this show.

Gonzales Way Out in Front in Court Betting

The betting continues on who will replace Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. As of this weekend, Sportsbook.com had Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales solidifying his lead as a solid 5-8 favorite (meaning an $8 bet would return $13). But Judge Edith Brown Clement has moved up to 4-1, while fellow appellate judge Emilio M. Garza dropped to 8-1, tied with Judge Janice Rogers Brown. Some money drifted to U.S. Appeals Court Judge Michael McConnell, who moved up a notch to 9-1, but the rest of the pack stayed well back of the leaders.

The gamblers apparently did not take note of first lady Laura Bush's statements that she wants a woman nominated. But the political punditocracy quickly added, among others, Judge Karen Williams of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan and Harvard Law professor and Vatican adviser Mary Ann Glendon to the list.

Lash Gone but Not Forgotten

Contrary to Wednesday's column, William H. Lash III left his job as assistant secretary of commerce on June 30 to return to teaching law at George Mason University law school. We are assured that the department Web site, which had him still on the job last week, will be updated.

She gets around: National Park Service Director Fran Mainella.