- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

The National Park Service wants to cut park hours and visitor services to save scarce funding, yet has spent nearly $100 million on travel, including foreign junkets to China, Japan, Africa, France and Russia since 2002.

Globe-trotting employees held meetings, attended conferences and gave presentations during their trips, but the practice has angered lawmakers, who say they are pulling the plug on the agency’s travel program.

Rep. Charles H. Taylor, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the interior, and Rep. Norm Dicks, Washington Democrat and ranking minority member of the subcommittee, told Park Service Director Fran Mainella to cancel all foreign trips and significantly cut domestic travel.

“In this technology age, the service should be using teleconferencing and other means of automated communications in lieu of costly travel,” the lawmakers told Mrs. Mainella in a letter released yesterday.

The lawmakers said next year’s budget will require employees to obtain congressional approval for travel abroad.

Park Service employees spent $44 million on travel, including 215 foreign trips, in 2003 and the first quarter of 2004. Foreign and domestic travel in 2002 topped $50 million and included 470 foreign junkets, according to the General Accounting Office and Interior Department inspector general.

Records show one employee went to Russia and the Congo at a cost of $13,200, and another went to China, South Africa and twice to France for $19,200. An employee in the director’s office took two trips to France for a total $6,300, and another employee went to Canada and South Africa for $10,000. One trip to Finland cost $5,600; another China trip cost $6,900.

An employee whose office was listed as “unknown” took a $4,500 trip to Mexico, and other “unknowns” took a $4,000 trip to France and a $3,000 trip to Argentina.

David Barna, spokesman for the Park Service, said it is policy not to comment on communications between Congress and the director and that a written response will be sent to the lawmakers.

Mr. Barna said not all travel is paid for by taxpayers, and that some is funded by third parties such as the World Bank to assist other countries with park-management plans.

The inspector general report released late yesterday shows less than 1 percent of travel is made to provide technical assistance to other countries.

Meanwhile, the Park Service says it is starved for money and is threatening to slash services. A memo from the Park Service’s Northwest region last week suggests eliminating life guards at a public beach, closing entire parks on Sundays and Mondays and visitor centers on federal holidays, and shutting down completely November through February.

Despite limited funding for current projects, renegade employees secretly planned and designed four new major construction projects with a $243 million price tag, plus tens of millions for yearly operational expenses, the lawmakers discovered.

“Diverting funds from critical backlog maintenance is unacceptable,” they said in the letter.

Park employees sidestepped a law that requires congressional approval of all construction projects costing more than $5 million by having outside “partners” develop the plans.

The recently discovered projects include a $100 million complex under construction at Valley Forge National Historical Park that will showcase a private collection of memorabilia, a $95 million visitor center at Gettysburg National Military Park and a $26 million center at Yellowstone National Park.

Lawmakers didn’t learn about a $22 million visitor center at Grand Teton National Park until the developer came to Capitol Hill last week asking for funding he said the Park Service had committed to him.

“Common sense dictates that before you embark on an expensive new project, you should first consult with the people who are paying the bills,” said John Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee. “And the Park Service has not vetted these projects with the bill payer, which is Congress.”

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