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9/12/2004

The AP and Bush on Parks

So the AP asks Bush and Kerry a policy question three times a week. It then reports their answers, without context or explanation. How useful is this practice? Have a look for yourself.

"Not very" is the right answer. The two candidates cite facts and figures, but present profoundly contradictory pictures of the health of the National Park Service (NPS). Without reportorial interjection, just a bit of context, the answers are completely meaningless.

The Context: here is a July, 2004 PDF of DOI agit-prop on behalf of Bush's NPS policy, and here is Bush's campaign web page that repeats the deceptions.

Democrats and environmentalists have a pretty good idea of what was actually in the DOI report:

Committee on Resources, Ranking Democrat Congressman Nick Rahall: "A feel good report with glossy photos of the President enjoying nature cannot hide the fact that this Administration has shortchanged the national parks in favor of enacting irresponsible tax cuts and funding an unpopular war halfway around the globe," asserted Rahall. Rahall is the Ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee which has jurisdiction over the national parks.
National Park Service Retirees: “Our national parks and the million Americans who will visit these American treasures this summer are ill served when top Interior and NPS officials cling desperately to a state of denial about the grave problems that they either created or made much worse at the parks. Surreal happy talk that is divorced from the genuinely dire reality of the situation is an insult to the proud history of the national park system and those of us who have devoted our lives to it. Gail Norton and Fran Mainella can’t just smile, pop up for photo opps at parks and then hold news conferences to spin their way out of the neglect and budget slashing of the last three years. The facts speak for themselves.”
This is obviously part of a pattern. The Campaign to Protect America's land said this in 2003:
The Department of the Interior's (DOI) recently released report, "Partnering and Managing for Excellence," simply used repackaged numbers and slick spin to twist the truth about the Administration's national park policy. The facts are clear. The Bush administration continues its massive giveaway of public lands and natural resources to private special interests and the National Parks are suffering dramatically as a result.

The Bush administration proclaims that it is addressing the National Park Service (NPS) maintenance backlog - yet in order to do so, it seems they are relying on "creative accounting." While making up glossy reports to convince the public that the Administration cares about this country's natural treasures, the Administration is ignoring the operational budgets of the parks and strangling the very core of park stewardship.
Let's turn to the veracity of Bush's answer to the AP question.
Bush: When I came to office, I pledged to reduce the maintenance backlog at our national parks. Over the last four years, I have devoted $3.9 billion to maintenance projects, putting the Park Service on track to eliminate the maintenance backlog.
Note that Bush pledged in 2000 to reduce the $5 billion backlog in NPS maintenance projects:
John Heilpren, AP, 7/9/2004: On Sept. 13, 2000, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush traveled to Monroe, Wash., where he "pledged to eliminate the $4.9 billion maintenance and resource protection backlog at the National Park Service, over five years," according to the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign Web site.
Perhaps Mr. Bush isn't clear what a "backlog" is - dictionary.com gives this definition: "an accumulation, especially of unfinished work or unfilled orders." That means that the "backlog" is left over stuff, outside of the normal maintenance and operating expenses. Yet look again at Bush's answer to the AP: "I have devoted $3.9 billion to maintenance projects..." Included in that $3.9 billion is current maintenance and expenditures. The Democratic Policy Committee reports that "according to the NPS's own statistics, new funding (above baseline Fiscal Year 2001 levels) to address the maintenance backlog will be only $662.3 million over four fiscal years from 2002 through 2005."

$662.3 million is a far cry from $4.9 billion. How does the Bush administration explain this discrepancy? Bad metaphors and fuzzy math. First, the bad metaphors:
John Heilprin, AP 7/8/04: Eliminating a maintenance backlog in the national parks, as President Bush promised in his 2000 campaign, is impossible, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said Thursday. She likened the park system to an old house that will forever need repairs.

"Just like in your house," Norton said in answer to a reporter's question. "You never get to the point where you say, 'Well, all done, totally zero left to do.'"
Now the fuzzy math:
John Heilprin, AP 7/8/04: Almost four years later, that figure [the $4.9 billion backlog] is seen as a "guesstimate" and "just fiction," Assistant Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett says. Yet that number was based on Park Service figures and the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm.

"It turns out that wasn't a useful guide," she said in an interview. "All of that was guesstimate. Nobody went out there and did what a real property manager does, which is to physically assess the facilities and document it."

Department officials acknowledge that no one really knows what the backlog is. But they are offering another way to look at Bush's campaign promise.

"The pledge that we're implementing is to spend $4.9 billion on that backlog and to simultaneously get the information we need to henceforth manage the parks and get them in acceptable condition," Scarlett said.

That figure was a 1997 estimate, based on Park Service information from 1993. The latest GAO estimate, from February 2002, puts the backlog at between $4.08 billion and $6.8 billion. The department does not plan an update.

"We have learned that a dollar figure is not produceable or meaningful," Scarlett said.
The GAO reports from 1997-98 (PDFs here and here) note that there is some uncertainty about the size of the backlog, but the $4.9 billion figure cited by Bush is the backlog with all the uncertain requests discarded. Also, note that the administration's newfound Ludditism on the quantification of NPS maintenance backlogs is nowhere reflected in his campaign materials. See, for example:
Bush-Cheney '04 Policy Memo. Subject: National Parks, 8/9/04: Myth: President Bush has reneged on his promise to eliminate the nearly $5 billion maintenance backlog in our National Parks.

Fact: The President's FY 2005 budget provides $1.1 billion in funds for maintenance of park facilities and roads, a 37 percent increase over 2001 and nearly double the amount from just seven years ago. This $77 million increase over last year will bring the total investment in park facilities maintenance during the Bush Administration to $3.9 billion over four years and will help fulfill the President's funding commitment to provide $4.9 billion over 5 years.
Everything in the "Fact" portion is true, except for the last clause of the last sentence. Everything in the "Myth" portion is also true. The $3.9 billion includes about $3.3 billion for current maintenance and $660 million for backlog maintenance.

If one can call deception and dishonesty ironic, there is an irony here: the Bush administration has taken steps to get an accounting handle on the maintenance backlog problem. The GAO reports [PDF] that new processes for tracking maintenance needs will be in place by 2006. Bush could have simply said that the situation on the ground was worse than we thought, and we couldn't spend the money without good oversight and direction. Instead, he lies. And the problem is worsening:
GAO PDF 5/6/04: According to the Department of the Interior’s latest estimates, the deferred maintenance backlog for the Interior agencies participating in the fee demonstration program ranges from $5.1 billion to $8.3 billion, with the Park Service alone accounting for an estimated $4 to $7 billion. Likewise, the Forest Service, the other participating agency, estimates its total deferred maintenance backlog to be about $8 billion.
Each of Bush's other claims in the AP quote are equally dishonest.
My 2005 budget devotes more funds per employee, per acre, and per visitor than at any time in the National Park Service's history.
I'll just quote Robert Landauer's editorial in the Oregonian:
Distortion: There is more money for parks per acre, per visitor and per employee than ever before.

Fact: Accounting trickery gives an illusion of progress. There is more money per worker and visitor because staffing and park attendance have been down during the last three years. There is more money per acre because park acreage has remained essentially flat while the budget has gone up.
Or as the National Park Service Retirees put it:
NPSR: This is a case of Mainella and Norton playing fast and loose with the facts, rather than simply lying. Their claim is true only for the past three years in that total employment in the NPS has declined, the number of visitors to the parks has gone down and park acreage has remained essentially constant. In other words, Mainella and Norton are correct about their claim only to the extent that our park system is in decline, which makes this “evidence” a particularly cynical example of twisting statistics to make a point.
Brad Knickerbocker of Christian Science Monitor is a must read journalist on Park issues. He reported in 2003 on declining attendance figures:
CSM, 8/12/03: An internal Park Service memo shows that the total number of "recreation visits" at the parks has dropped almost 16.8 million since January 2000.

"The downward trend that began in 2000 is continuing as inclement weather, global warfare, and especially the uncertain economic conditions are resulting in a disturbing future for visitation to the NPS," states the Park Service memo.
Combined with the Bush Administration's push for, and costly study of, privatizing park employees, is it any surprise that expenditure per employee is up?
ENS, 5/20/03: Environmentalists say the Bush administration is forcing the National Park Service to cut millions of dollars in needed repair and rehabilitation projects in order to pay for homeland security and to pay for studying the privatization of some 1,700 agency jobs.
Bush's next sentence in his AP answer:
Since 2001, the Park Service operations budget has increased 20 percent to $1.8
billion.
This is also true, though again misleading without context. It neglects to mention two relevant facts. First, 20% isn't much over a 4 year period, given the roughly 4% annual increases in pay, and the normal cost increases. Second, there have been unusual natural disaster and security expanses that have commandeered significant NPS resources. Brad Knickerbocker, again, provides some background:
CSM 5/25/04: Part of the problem is, the park service has had other expensive obligations to meet: scheduled pay raises for federal employees, cleaning up after hurricanes and other natural disasters, and - since the terrorist attacks of 911 - providing extra security for places like the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument when the Department of Homeland Security declares a Code Orange alert.
Evidence for the funding shortfalls isn't hard to come by. The best clue might be the internal memoranda circulated to Park Superintendents:
Memo 2/20/04: Although a few parks were fortunate to receive a base operating increase in the FY04 appropriation, the majority of Northeast Region Parks are beginning this fiscal year with fewer operating dollars than in FY03.
The memo then informs the superintendents not to inform their constituents, or if they feel they must, to not call the cuts "cuts," but instead "service level adjustments:"
Id: If you are personally pressed by the media in an interview, we all agreed to use the terminology of "service level adjustment" due to fiscal constraints as a means of describing what actions we are taking.
Administration functionaries of course denied that service cuts were planned [see also AP 3/18/04]. 85% of the entities within the NPS were operating with a smaller base budget in 2004 than 2003.

Bill Wade, former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park and spokesman for the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees, perhaps said it best: ENS, 7/12/04: The parks and the public are "ill served when top Interior and Park Service officials cling desperately to a state of denial about the grave problems that they either created or made much worse at the parks." We are all ill served by a press that avoids context like the plague.

For more information on the problems confronting the NPS, these two reports from the NPCA are must reads: The Burgeoning Backlog and Endangered Rangers. I posted back in July on the Bush administration's scuttling of the roadless rule and the firing of Chief of Park Police Theresa Chambers. Chambers was a whistleblower; she talked to the press about security risks at national monuments, and was fired for it. Her treatment has been appalling.

 

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