NBC News and news services
updated 3/25/2004 7:28:35 PM ET 2004-03-26T00:28:35

The National Park Service on Thursday ordered an immediate halt to all foreign travel by employees after lawmakers criticized plans to cut back services and hours at some parks this summer.

Director Fran Mainella also promised to trim 10 percent from domestic travel and to require that either she or Interior Secretary Gale Norton approve all major projects.

“All agencies have to face increased costs — we’re no different,” Mainella told lawmakers who oversee her agency’s budget. “It’s a balancing act ... just like a home.”

Both parties pile on
Her assurances couldn’t head off intense questioning and withering criticisms from Republicans and Democrats on a House Appropriations subcommittee over Park Service spending.

“Who’s minding the store here? Are you all sort of oblivious to what’s going on?” Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., asked Mainella.

“I think you can sense ... there’s a great deal of frustration here,” echoed Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz. “Either you’re not asking for enough money, or you’re not managing well.” A few minutes later, Kolbe answered his own question.

MAINELLA, BUSH
Tony Gutierrez  /  AP file
National Park Service Director Fran Mainella
“It seems to me what we’re dealing with is a management and priority problem with the Park Service,” he said.

The spending reforms were announced after Rep. Charles Taylor, R-N.C., the subcommittee’s chairman, and Rep. Norman Dicks, D-Wash., its senior Democrat, questioned $94 million that the Park Service’s employees spent on travel the past two years.

Most of that was for domestic travel, according to Mainella. But $650,000 was spent in 2002 and $300,000 in 2003 for foreign travel, she said.

This year, $100,000 has been spent on foreign travel — but there will be no more, she said.

Other issues
Lawmakers also complained that they hadn’t been consulted, as required, for some projects costing more than $5 million. That includes paying for most of a proposed $100 million visitor center and museum complex at Valley Forge Historical Park in Pennsylvania.

They also were critical of the agency’s plans for cuts in services at parks despite steady budget increases for much of the past decade.

Those concerns were raised after former Park Service employees earlier this month released an e-mailed memo suggesting the Park Service was planning to keep some parks and visitor centers open fewer hours, or scale back on guided ranger tours and lifeguards at some beaches.

One e-mail memo in particular, said to be from the Northeast regional office of the NPS, has generated controversy. "Close the visitor center on all federal holidays"; "Eliminate all guided ranger tours"; "Let the manicured grasslands grow all summer"; "Close the park every Sunday and Monday" were included in a list of potential cost-saving measures.

Then, in an apparent attempt at spin control, the memo goes on to instruct administrators on how to spin service reductions, including instructions to avoid the phrase "this is a cut" altogether. Instead, the term "service level adjustment" is advised.

Where money goes
The Park Service is asking for $102 million more than was approved by Congress for this year’s Park Service budget of $2.56 billion. That includes $1.6 billion for park operations, with the rest going toward building projects, acquiring land, historic preservation and maintenance.

“You can’t sit here and tell me, across this table, that services aren’t eroding in the national parks,” Dicks told Mainella.

Mainella maintained the Park Service was working hard to constantly improve management and to make sure dollars were spent well.

She said the Park Service was requesting $22 million for specific park operations, to cover growing expenses in areas such as security, law enforcement, maintenance and repairs.

Park advocates and even Dicks himself say the problem can be traced to a lack of commitment to funding the parks by the Bush Administration.

Peter Altman of the Campaign to Protect America's Lands (CPAL) said the administration has been unwilling to ask Congress for emergency funds for Hurricane Isabel cleanup and security upgrades after  Sept. 11, and that the service has had to cover shortfalls out of its operational budget.

Who's to blame?
"The Bush administration is guilty of willful neglect and disinformation to the detriment of our national parks," Altman said. He also points out that pay increases mandated by Congress have not been accompanied by the money to fund them. All told, CPAL and other advocacy groups say that the parks have been shorted $170 million on these and other items over the past three years. "A big part of this is the administration," said Dicks, a Democrat.

Though he said that the service does need to cut back on travel, he thinks that the administration "simply is not giving them enough money" to cover the raises and emergency costs.

But Dicks also acknowledged that the Park Service has received more than $264 million in operation increases since 1997 and that Congress has been more than generous.

"Interest groups and bean counters are always going to make an excuse. The bottom line is that we have given them $100 million more than they asked for" since 1997, said John Scofield, a House Appropriations Committee spokesman.

"The problem is not a lack of funds, it's a prioritization of needs," he added. The committee is insisting on canceling foreign travel and making use of modern teleconferencing technologies, along with other measures, as a means of reigning in costs.

Meanwhile, on the eve of Mainella's testimony, the administration sought to maintain calm. "The welcome mat is out and all of our national parks are open," said John Wright, an Interior Department spokesman. "Congress has been very good to our budget requests for our national parks."

The Associated Press and NBC's Mike Viqueira contributed to this report.

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