National parks look for ways to pay back donors
By MICHAEL DOYLE
WASHINGTON -- Put an X in a tax-return box and send more money to Yosemite and other national parks.
Or write a check, and be rewarded with a park plaque. Or lobby Congress, and boost general park funding at the expense of some other programs.
The possibilities, and the political choices, are now proliferating for national park aficionados. With the park service's deferred maintenance backlog now exceeding $4.5 billion, by some estimates, the need is obvious. The solutions, however, are elusive.
"We recognize that Americans love their parks," National Park Service spokesman Al Nash said, "and we need to find an appropriate, tasteful way for them to express that."
Donors already are being tapped to augment the park service's $1.6 billion annual budget. The private Yosemite Fund, for instance, reports providing over $23 million to the park since 1988. Boosted by contributions from the likes of Bank of America, Chevron and Wells Fargo, the Yosemite Fund has become one of the largest of roughly 150 "friends" organizations serving individual parks nationwide.
A much smaller organization, the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park Foundation, supports the two national parks immediately south of Yosemite. The modest fund, which has donated about half a million dollars since 1986, is now trying to raise money to pay for rangers going into San Joaquin Valley schools.
"It's a very cool concept," said Alex Picavet, spokeswoman for the two parks. "It's one we would not be able to do on our own."
These donors could be more explicitly recognized under a new park service proposal. It explicitly will not mean corporate logos inside national parks; that's ruled out, except for use on brochures and written material. It could, though, mean plaques, or benches and embedded stones, or other, more creatively prominent shout-outs to donors.
"We do want to celebrate the role of philanthropy in the national parks," said John Piltzecker, chief of the National Park Service's partnership office. "Philanthropy actually has a very long tradition in the national parks."
Some 100 individuals and interest groups already have commented on the park service's proposed new donor-recognition policy. Some are extremely skeptical.
"This starts a slow-motion commercialization of the national park system," declared Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "What will be allowed stops just short of licensing ads for 'The Official Beer of Yosemite' or 'Old Faithful, Brought to You by Viagra.'"
Some of the claims may be overblown; park service officials certainly think so. Noting that "the level of recognition needs to be commensurate with the gift," Piltzecker said that individual park superintendents have expressed interest in broadening local funding opportunities. Guidelines would be tailored for individual park circumstances.
Individual rooms could be named for donors, under the proposal, but park features and entire park buildings could not.
"It's not really a matter of calling up, making a donation, and expecting a plaque," Piltzecker said.
There's no question, though, that the rhetoric accurately conveys the passions that often circulate around national parks. The appetite hasn't been quenched by the $17 million donated to parks last year through the various "friends" groups and the $31 million provided through the National Park Foundation.
"Ever-growing crowds at some of our most popular parks continue to put pressure on park resources," Indiana Republican Mark Souder said.
Souder chairs the House subcommittee on criminal justice, drug policy and human resources. The usually quiet panel has not, historically, played much of a role in park policies. Souder has liberally stretched his subcommittee's turf to convene half-a-dozen hearings around the country on park issues. Souder has also authored a bill to give the parks a serious helping hand.
The bill, a version of which is also backed in the Senate by Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, would create a check-off system on tax returns similar to the one used to publicly finance presidential campaigns. The voluntary contributions to the so-called National Park Service Centennial Fund would be split among maintenance and resource protection needs.
"I think it's a wonderful idea, as a citizen," Picavet said, stressing that she was not voicing official park service policy.
Still, this might prove to be a hard sell. Advocates for national forests and fish and wildlife refuges, for instance, could protest that they, too, deserve special billing. Carving up tax returns for the benefit of one government program over another could also raise serious questions.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)
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