WASHINGTON (AP) – 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.”‘

The National Park Service has come under criticism from environmentalists, retired agency employees and House Republican who oversee the service’s budget. So Norton summoned reporters to show how much money the agency has spent on parks on Bush’s watch.

Her report said Bush “is meeting his commitment to invest $4.9 billion to address maintenance needs” by 2006 and has increased spending in other areas. The administration, Norton said, has added the equivalent of 829 full-time jobs to the agency since 2000, bringing the total to 20,637. Previously, she has said that more than $3 billion has spent so far.

She said the agency’s operations and construction budget has grown 18 percent since Bush took office, compared with a 2 percent cut during President Clinton’s first term.

“Let me set the record straight: The big picture is a bright one. Never before have our parks received so much care,” Norton said.

The National Parks Conservation Association, however, says the Park Service has spent only $662 million in new money to reduce a backlog of maintenance needs. The group says the rest of the money is going to repairs that do not ease the backlog.

The Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees brushed off Norton’s progress report as “surreal happy talk that is divorced from the genuinely dire reality of the situation.”

Last month, House Republicans who oversee Interior Department spending approved a $1 billion budget for park operations. But they took issue with hundreds of millions of dollars spent for construction and travel rather than to reduce the maintenance backlog.

Norton suggested those lawmakers were misinformed. “Congress, like all the rest of us, responds to the information they hear,” she said.

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.

Almost four years later, that figure 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.

She said the department now intends to repair an unspecified number of high priority facilities among the more than 28,000 run by the Park Service. One goal is to complete by October an index to the condition of those facilities, using methods from the real estate industry.



On the Net:

National Park Service: http://www.nps.gov

National Parks Conservation Association: http://npca.org

AP-ES-07-08-04 1736EDT



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