Years of tight budgets leave parks playing catch-up


A year ago, America's parks system seemed to be in as much peril as a snowball in Death Valley National Park, dogged by money woes, pollution, and political controversy. But 2005 has brought a turn for the better, especially when it comes to funding, according to Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group. Last November, Congress approved a $70 million increase in the money allotted for park operations, bringing the total budget to $2.2 billion; another approximately $70 million boost is expected next year. "That's significant," says Kiernan. "It's money that pays for rangers and day-to-day operations."

An even bigger boon could come from the National Park Centennial Act, a bill before Congress that would let taxpayers donate part of their refund to parks, resulting in millions of dollars. Although a decision is unlikely this year, the bill is backed by senator John McCain and other Washington heavyweights, and signals an innovative new approach to park funding.

Still, years of tight budgets have left the parks playing catch-up, says Don Barry, an executive vice president in the Wilderness Society, who helped manage the National Park Service during the Clinton years. The National Parks Conservation Association estimates that the parks system needs over $600 million a year more to operate at full capacity. That money would come in handy as visitation climbs back to levels not seen since 2001. This year up to 280 million people will visit a national park.