Policy: Budgets & Deficits

Report shows wasteful spending by Park Service as treasured monuments deteriorate

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Politics,Congress,Susan Ferrechio,Senate,House of Representatives,Republican Party,Debt Ceiling,PennAve,Tom Coburn,Budgets and Deficits,Spending,National Park Service

The National Park Service has a massive backlog of maintenance projects it cannot afford to address even as it continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars acquiring thousands of additional acres of new park land that has drawn little interest from the public.

A lengthy report on the Park Service released Tuesday by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., found that the service intends to spend $30 million over five years just to plan the agency's centennial anniversary.

Coburn, a top fiscal watchdog in Congress, said the problems within the Park Service are "a microcosm of congressional mismanagement" of the bloated federal budget.

The report comes one day before House and Senate budget negotiators begin talks on a long-term spending deal that Republicans believe should be crafted to rein in spending and reduce the nation's $17 trillion debt.

Coburn believes the Park Services is plagued by wasteful spending, and his report cites examples, including $17.3 million for "Heritage Partnership Programs" that include a wine-tasting train in Ohio, and an "Autopalooza" automotive heritage show in Southeast Michigan.

Then there is the $15 million the Park Service spent on D.C. area concert venues like Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., which generates up to $30 million in revenue every year. The Park Service spent $731,000 on a seven-year inspection of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis to detect stains, and that didn't include any money to clean them.

The agency, meanwhile, is drowning in deferred maintenance on parks and monuments that totals $11.5 billion and is hindering the public use of some of the nation's more popular attractions.

Grand Canyon trails are in disrepair. Water at Yellowstone is pouring out of old pipes. And crumbling walkways at Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia are leading to $2 million injury lawsuits.

Meanwhile, the Park Service keeps buying land.

The federal government, according to the report, is planning to purchase 1,366 acres to add to Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park at a total cost of $107 million, and plans to scoop up three acres in the Virgin Islands for $2.77 million, among other purchases.

Coburn's report found that the Park Service has added 26 more parks to the system since 1997, though only a fraction of them are frequently visited.

The overall park service budget is $3 billion annually, with $2.58 derived from congressional appropriations.

One area of potential Park Service waste involves the designation of historic sites that few people visit, but which cost millions to maintain and operate.

There is the Philadelphia row house where "wounded Polish freedom fighter" Thaddeus Kosciuszko lived for nine months. It barely gets six visitors a day and costs $352 an hour in federal tax dollars to operate.

Taxpayers also foot the annual $545,000 tab to maintain the Charles Pickney National Historic Site. It's an old farmhouse that researchers learned was built four years after the death of Pickney, a signer of the Constitution. It was designated a historic site after an unnamed senator from South Carolina pushed it through to stop a developer from building new houses on the land.

Some of the Park Service acquisitions are simply a mystery.

The Hohokam Pima National Monument in Arizona has been inaccessible to visitors since it was added to the park service in 1972. It is located on an Indian reservation that strictly prohibits access to the site, which appears to include some kind of buried archeological dig.

According to the National Park Service, "Any visitors to the area will be considered trespassers."

This story was first published at 11:25 a.m.

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