Endangering Our National Parks: An Editorial (continued)

White House policy threatens the environmental standards, fire safety, and very existence of our National Parks and the local economies they support

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Promises, Promises

"I will ensure that the federal government meets its responsibilities by devoting $5 billion to eliminate the backlog in maintenance and improvements at our national park."

Wouldn't it be nice if a president said that? Well one did—or at least he said it on his road to the White House. It was part of a stump speech George W. Bush gave on Oct 27, 2000, less than two weeks before the election.

Bush's team came up with $5 billion figure from the 1998 General Accounting Office estimate that, in addition to the regular annual costs to run America's National Parks, monuments, historic structures, and trails, it would take and extra $4.9 billion just top fix the crumbling facilities at parks and national monuments. This is called the backlog.

Bush crows that he's taken care of 900 backlog projects to the tune of $2.9 billion. Wouldn't that, too, be nice? Too bad it's a lie.

Of that $2.9 billion supposedly spent on the backlog, only "roughly $200 million to $300 million" was money spent above and beyond the regular maintenance costs according to Deputy Park Service Director Donald Murphy in his testimony before Congress last July. The remaining $2.6 billion or so was just regular park spending, not the backlog.

And those 900 projects supposedly addressed actually number 840, according to the Campaign to Protect America's lands. Fine, I won't quibble over the Administration's rounding up by 60. The problem is, the vast majority of those weren't backlog projects, but rather emergency ones (safety repairs, raw sewage cleanup and the like).

Park Service Director Fran Mainella has proudly pointed to California's historic lighthouse at Point Reyes as a "model for the Administration's commitment to repair projects at National Parks," according to the CPAL. The repair? The lighthouse's cogs are propped up by wooden crutches, and the thing got a new paint job.

The Mojave National Preserve can't hire the staff it needs to put a stop to poaching, hazardous dumping, and the theft of archaeological artifacts. Sequoia has closed four ranger stations. Lassen Volcanic National Park has had to cut its interpretive staff by half. Yosemite has cancelled its campfire talks for visitors. And the leaky roof at Gettysburg that Bush often cited in speeches as an example of the shameful neglect in our national parks? Still: drip, drip, drip, drip.

It's not just the outsourcing initiative or taking credit for work that was slipshod at best and nonexistent for the most part. Here are some other recent presidential initiatives designed to defraud the American public, poison our environment, and rape our national lands.

They Don't Call Them "The Smokies" for Nothing

When they called them the Great Smoky Mountains, they didn't mean coal smoke. But that's what the Smokies got, in spades, from coal-fired power plants in the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, according to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

In 2002, America's most visited National Park also reigned as the nation's most polluted. The rain there is five to ten times more acidic than normal (clouds with the same acid levels as vinegar blanket the mountaintop spruce-fir forests), and the park registered a total 42 unhealthy air days in 2002.

Pollution has also caused visibility at Acadia National Park has dropped from a wintertime high of 110 miles to a haze summer low of 33 miles, led Sequoia National Park to issue health advisories on 81 days, and caused rains as acidic as lemon juice to fall on Shenandoah National Park.

Why all the bad news? Heavily polluting factories exist right on the doorsteps of these National Treasures.

And it's going to get worse: Bush's EPA is doing away with the provision that would require the nation's 17,000 aging power plants—which produce from six to twelve times as many emissions as newer, more technologically-advanced ones—to upgrade their pollution controls should they want to expand.

Can't See the Forest for the (Cutting Down of) Trees

Over three years of planning and 600 public meetings, the Roadless Rule—a Clinton-era provision to prevent logging trucks from getting at some 58 million acres, or 31 percent, of our National Forests--elicited one million comments. Ninety-five percent of them were in favor of the rule.

Despite this mighty expression of public will, the Bush Administration has now helped midwife a federal court decision to overturn the Roadless Rule. This would open every nook and cranny of our national forests to logging trucks—because the 360,000 miles of roads already snaking their way through 52 percent of our national forests apparently isn't enough.

What's more, you paid for those logging roads that the timber companies use. They cost the taxpayers $116 million in direct subsidies--that's $15,000 per mile. That means that we (a) donate the raw materials to the timber companies by signing over our national forests, and (b) help underwrite their operating costs by building roads.

Who is Bush's Department of Agriculture appointee in charge of overseeing the forest service? Mark Rey, formerly a lobbiest for the timber industry.

"Healthy Forests" Means Higher Fire Risks

After August's Aspen Fire swept through 84,750 acres destroyed 330 homes and buildings in Arizona, George Bush stood in front of the charred trees and pushed his "Healthy Forests Initiative" as a way to combat fires.

This plan, according to a White House press release, "Focuses on reducing the risk of catastrophic fire by thinning dense undergrowth and brush in priority locations."

The proposal allows logging companies to cull areas of up to 1,000 acres, on all 190 million acres of our public lands, without having to undergo the usual environmental review. But science doesn't show that this program will help stop forest fires.

The initiative actually promotes the logging of medium and large trees in the hearts of forests, far from where fires threaten homes and communities. "Healthy Forests" has nothing to do with clearing the small trees, underbrush, and other natural tinder near forest edges—the true culprits in rapid wildfire spread into human communities.

In fact, according to the CPAL, "Government studies have shown that logging larger trees not only threaten water quality, fish and wildlife, and forest health, but can also increase fire risks."

In an open letter from firefighters, smokejumpers, and NPS fire technicians to Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Agriculture Secretary Anne Venneman, these experts explain that, among other problems caused by timber harvesting, "Logged units are rarely maintained to control the prolific growth of flammable small trees, brush, and invasive weeds. This greatly increases the fire risks and fuel hazards."

Got that? "Healthy Forests" will actually increase the risk of forest fires. It will also cost taxpayers $417 million in 2004. Yep: we're actually going to pay the logging companies to go in, cut down our old growth forests, and sell them for profit.

These parks belong to us, the American people, not to the White House, not to the timber companies, not to local municipalities, and not to the mining industries. What's more, it's our money being spent—or misspent—to maintain them.

It is our right to enjoy these parks, and our responsibility to protect them. The organizations listed below can help you find our more about our parks, the fight to protect them, and what you can do to help everything from the Grand Canyon to the battlefield at Gettysburg to those Great Smokey Mountains.

For more information:

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(Originally published Nov. 20, 2003 on MSNBC.com. Reprinted with permission. This article won a Lowell Thomas award for travel journalism.)

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in November 2003.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.