updated 2/5/2007 3:51:26 PM ET 2007-02-05T20:51:26

National parks would get extra money next year to prepare for a big birthday bash - their own.

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President Bush's 2008 budget, unveiled Monday, would give the National Park Service its largest-ever funding increase in preparation for the park system's 100th birthday in 2016.

In all, Bush allots $2.4 billion for the National Park Service for 2008, $230 million more than he requested last year. His plan would add $100 million each year leading up to the centennial, and pledges another $100 million to be matched by private donations.

The plan would add 3,000 new seasonal employees and increase money for park maintenance - two areas that advocates say have suffered for years.

Combined, the public and private investments could equal a $3 billion investment over 10 years, Park Service officials said.

Leverage donations an illusion?
A park watchdog group applauded the move. But House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., panned Bush's proposal, calling the plan to leverage private donations "an illusion conjured by this administration."

The new funding is largely the result of shifting funds from existing important park programs, such as construction, into a new budget column with a new label, Rahall added.

"Our national parks are national treasures - and their funding is a national responsibility," Rahall said.

Ron Tipton, senior vice president for programs at the National Parks Conservation Association, said the president's proposal would be a significant step toward solving some of the parks' major problems, including crumbling facilities, growing pollution and lack of park staff.

The group has estimated that the national parks are underfunded by more than $800 million.

Other key features of the proposed budget include:

-$20.0 million for cultural and natural resource programs at 20 parks to meet specific improvement goals, such as upgrading historic structures, eradicating exotic species and restoring disturbed lands.

-$22.5 million for federal land acquisition, including completing land acquisition for the Flight 93 National Memorial and funds for Civil War battlefield grants.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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