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Hard Choices Ahead: Are New NPS Areas Compatible with Calls for a Balanced Budget?


Photo by Kevin Burkett via Creative Commons and flickr.

Two bills introduced this month by U.S. Senator Mark Udall illustrate major challenges that lie ahead for parks and for the nation's economy. Are proposals for new additions to the National Park System compatible with calls for a balanced federal budget?

Senator Udall, a Democrat from Colorado, has been supportive of a variety of measures seen as beneficial for public lands, so this story is not intended to be either partisan or to single out the senator for criticism. That said, two recent bills sponsored by the lawmaker do serve as examples of the challenges facing many elected officials in today's political and economic climate.

Is it realistic for lawmakers to continue to support additions to the National Park System at the same time they are calling for a balanced national budget?

A release on Sen. Udall's website on February 4 said he and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) have "introduced the Camp Hale Study Act of 2011,(S-279), which "directs the Secretary of the Interior to study the feasibility and suitability of establishing Camp Hale as a national historic district and a separate unit of the National Park System."

Cape Hale is well-known to many NPS old-timers, since some fine NPS rangers from a previous generation trained there during World War II and then returned to serve in parks all over the country.

According to Sen. Udall's office,

Camp Hale, near Leadville, was used by U.S. Armed Forces such as the Army's 10th Mountain Division during WWII and the Cold War as a training facility for combat in high-alpine and mountainous conditions. In addition, the CIA used the camp to train Tibetan freedom fighters to resist Chinese occupation in the 1950s and 60s.

Camp Hale was de-activated in 1965; it is now part of the White River and San Isabel National Forests. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Udall's bill would call for an analysis of whether it is feasible to establish Camp Hale as a national historic district to recognize and protect its significance in the defense of our nation over the past century.

"Camp Hale is an important part of our state's proud national defense legacy, and it deserves to be recognized and protected. As a training site, Camp Hale has been home to U.S. soldiers who later fought the Nazis in Italy, and Tibetan freedom fighters who fought against occupation – it has played an important part in our country's shared pursuits of freedom," Udall said. "Designating Camp Hale as a national historic district will preserve its connection to the past, as well as honor the people who trained there."

Udall introduced similar legislation in the 111th Congress. It passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and would have been included in a public lands omnibus bill Udall pushed for in 2010.

There's no doubt this site has historical—and emotional—importance. Is it worthy of NPS status? If a study is authorized, that analysis will help answer that question.

Even if a future addition to the National Park System were to result, that doesn't necessarily mean an increase to the agency's budget. This wouldn't be the first time politicians have established new parks without providing any funding. The result, of course, is to siphon off already scarce money and positions from existing NPS sites.

Sen. Udall isn't alone, of course, in suggestions for new parks. Just to offer one other example, Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Maryland, has joined three colleagues to introduce S-247, "A bill to establish the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn, New York, and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Caroline, Dorchester, and Talbot Counties, Maryland, and for other purposes."

Such proposals raise an important question: In difficult economic times, should the Congress be adding new areas to the National Park System? If so, how should they be funded?

Those questions take on a different dimension in light of another proposal offered by some members of Congress—including Sen. Udall. According to a statement from his office,

"On February 1, 2011, I proudly became an original co-sponsor of a bipartisan Balanced Budget Amendment, S.J.Res.4.... The legislation would enact a constitutional amendment directing Congress to balance the federal budget each year. It states that federal spending could not exceed revenue, except in special cases, such as when the nation is in a war declared by Congress. And it could be suspended only if three-fifths of the members of the House and Senate agree."

I suspect most Americans would agree that the current level of deficit spending is a serious problem, and a solution will require some difficult choices that involve both spending cuts and ways to increase revenue. As the senator's press release points out, "the United States has balanced its budget only five times in the last 50 years."

Now, it might seem like the senator wants it both ways -- he wants a new unit of the National Park System in his state, and he wants a balanced budget at the same time. His press secretary, Tara Trujillo, said that with prudent decision-making both goals can be achieved.

"Mark’s goals are to cut wasteful spending while investing in Colorado in ways that will lift our economy. The result of this bill could boost tourism, upon which our state’s economy relies heavily on, while protecting the land and the history that go with it," said Ms. Trujillo. "Mark believes smart spending and budget balancing are accomplishments our country can achieve and are not mutually exclusive.”

Since the Traveler focuses on discussion of park-related topics, it's appropriate to ask what impacts a requirement to balance the federal budget every year could have on the national parks. Major changes would seem to be inevitable.

Perhaps the debate over a balanced budget amendment should include preparation of a proposed budget by supporters of the idea, showing in some detail what cuts—and new sources of revenue—would be required to balance the books. Without that information, the balanced budget debate becomes not much more than political posturing…or a recipe for a national "train wreck."

Only when such details are available will we know if it's feasible to continue to talk about adding new parks…and balancing the budget at the same time.

What do you think?

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Until the military, social security and Medicare are part of the discussion there will never be a balanced budget. And a balanced budget requirement has no place in the constitution. (The same people who favor such a mandate will fuss the most when it is implemented, I suspect.)

As for new (and existing) parks, one could argue that without new (or expanded) units the park system will stagnate and become even less relevant to younger generations. Furthermore, the issue of new parks seems to be framed in terms of spending without any return--in fact, parks have been shown to be important economic engines through tourist spending and attendant infrastructure.

This issue is too complicated to discuss in a short post, but, in sum, I see more problems with a static park system than with a limited number of new units.

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