- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

Buried in the huge appropriations bill that the returning Senate must discuss this week is a little-noticed provision to privatize the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the park and museum on the site of the 1995 truck bombing that killed 168 persons.

The management of the memorial insists that making it an affiliate of the National Park Service under the ownership of a private foundation — rather than the full-fledged national park it is today — is the only way to ensure the site’s financial future.

“As part of the Park Service, we have to abide by 177 government regulations,” the memorial’s Executive Director Kari Watkins said yesterday. “Many of them are ridiculous in an urban environment: We don’t need a wildfire or wildlife plan, but we have to have one. … The costs this unnecessary burden imposes on us are outrageous.”

“If we want the memorial to be financially sustainable, this is what we have to do.”

But critics of the proposal, who include survivors of the bombing and relatives of the victims, feel “unhappy and betrayed” that a national monument is being placed in the hands of a private foundation.

The provision, sponsored by Rep. Ernest Istook, Oklahoma Republican, was adopted as part of the omnibus spending package passed by the House on Dec. 8. Now, it is before the Senate, which returns today.

“I don’t like the idea of the future of this memorial being in the hands of a private foundation,” said John Cole, whose two godchildren, Elijah and Erin Coverdale, 3 and 5 years old, died when the blast tore through the Alfred P. Murrah building on April 19, 1995.

“This could open the door to all kinds of changes that are not conducive to the future of the memorial,” such as admission charges to the park, Mr. Cole said. The museum already charges a $7 fee to visitors.

Currently, the day-to-day operations of the memorial are overseen by a presidentially appointed board of trustees. The endowment that funds it is managed by the foundation that raised more than $20 million for its establishment. The site is owned by the Park Service.

The pending legislation would dissolve the trust and transfer ownership of the memorial and the land to the foundation, which then would assume management.

Mr. Cole — a member of the board of the foundation — says the 350-member task force that spent nine months researching and consulting the form of the memorial, determined from the beginning that it should be a national park to ensure its preservation for future generations.

“Right from the beginning, before we even knew what the form of the memorial would be, we wanted it to be a part of the National Park Service to guarantee that it would be there for the future, for our children,” he said.

Miss Watkins, however, said removing it from the Park Service is the only way to ensure the memorial’s sustainability.

“Without an annual appropriation,” the memorial’s executive director said, “it is impossible to meet the costs the Park Service imposes. … Since we made this arrangement in 1997, the costs have tripled. We just can’t cope with that.”

The costs of staffing the memorial with Park Service officers was nearly $600,000 last year, says Miss Watkins, more than three times the $187,000 it was in 1997. The costs are met by the foundation, out of interest from the endowment, admission fees and other income.

One of the issues that critics raise is the question of standards.

“As a part of the National Park Service, there are certain minimum standards in terms of the visitor experience and in terms of accountability,” which would be threatened by the proposed change, Mr. Cole said.

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