- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Tax-return donor box proposed

Put an X in a tax-return box and send more money to Yosemite and other national parks. Or lobby Congress and boost general park funding at the expense of some other programs.

Possibilities, and the political choices, are proliferating for national park supporters. With the park service’s deferred maintenance backlog exceeding $4.5 billion, by some estimates, the need to help is obvious.

Donors already are being tapped to augment the park service’s $1.6 billion annual budget. Boosted by contributions from the likes of Bank of America, the private Yosemite Fund reports receiving more than $23 million for the park since 1988.

These donors could be recognized more explicitly under a park service proposal. It won’t mean corporate logos inside national parks, except for use on brochures and written material, but could result in plaques, benches or embedded stones noting the donors.

“We do want to celebrate the role of philanthropy in the national parks,” said John Piltzecker, chief of the National Park Service’s partnership office. “Philanthropy actually has a very long tradition in the national parks.”

About 100 people and interest groups have commented on the park service’s proposed donor-recognition policy. Some are skeptical.

“This starts a slow-motion commercialization of the national park system,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “What will be allowed stops just short of licensing ads for ‘The Official Beer of Yosemite.’”

Individual rooms could be named for donors under the proposal, but park features and entire park buildings could not.

“Ever-growing crowds at some of our most popular parks continue to put pressure on park resources,” said Rep. Mark Souder, Indiana Republican.

Mr. Souder chairs the House Government Reform subcommittee on criminal justice, drug policy and human resources. The panel historically has played a limited role in park policies. Mr. Souder has stretched his subcommittee’s turf to convene a half-dozen hearings across the country on park issues. He also has authored a bill to give the parks a serious helping hand.

The bill, a version of which also is backed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, would create a system on tax returns similar to the one used to publicly finance presidential campaigns. The voluntary contributions to the so-called National Park Centennial Fund would be split among maintenance and resource protection needs.

Still, this might prove to be a hard sell. Advocates for national forests and fish and wildlife refuges, for instance, could protest that they, too, deserve special billing. Carving up tax returns for the benefit of one government program over another also could raise serious questions.

• Distributed by Scripps Howard

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