Monday, January 15, 2007

The National Park Service’s new director said the agency will increasingly look to outside sources for money to help maintain parks.

“We’re much more business-savvy than we used to be,” said Mary A. Bomar, a career employee who became director in October, in one of her first interviews as head of the agency.

A Government Accountability Office report last year said the Park Service is increasingly cutting back on visitor services, education programs and protections for natural and cultural resources because funding has failed to keep pace with operating costs. The agency also has a huge maintenance backlog.

Miss Bomar said the Park Service acknowledges it has challenges, including shrinking staff, aging facilities and a diminished visitor experience. Parks also have lost some of their relevance and connections to younger generations, she said.

She said philanthropy will be a big part of a plan announced this year, called the “centennial challenge,” to revitalize and restore parks for the agency’s 100th anniversary in 2016.

The agency wants to “look at projects where we could match and leverage funding,” she said. “Why not?”

The agency is bringing in 12 percent of its budget from outside sources; a decade ago, almost the entire budget was federally appropriated. Officers have been holding meetings with private interests to increase awareness of the agency’s fundraising efforts.

Much of the private support for national parks comes through the National Park Foundation, chartered by Congress in 1967. In past years, companies such as American Airlines Inc., Discovery Communications Inc., Eastman Kodak Co. and Ford Motor Co. have each donated millions to parks.

Some critics have been concerned that more private funding could cross a line. In 2004, the agency proposed letting some employees solicit donations, accepting contributions from alcohol and tobacco companies for the first time and giving donors the right to put their names on rooms, benches and bricks.

Those proposals were scuttled last year after criticism, and Miss Bomar said she has no plans to revisit them.

As part of the centennial challenge, the parks plan several “signature projects,” including a new visitor center at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and restoration of Ellis Island in New York Harbor.

The Park Service has acknowledged that the aging Ellis Island complex has been neglected, and the agency hopes to use some private dollars to restore the historical immigrant gateway.

Miss Bomar said she has no plans to reopen the Statue of Liberty’s crown, which has been closed to visitors since the September 11 attacks.

She was less forthcoming about other park policies, saying it would be “inappropriate to discuss” the issue of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park.

A temporary plan caps the number of snowmobiles entering Yellowstone at 720 a day and allows 140 snowmobiles a day to enter Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, which connects the two parks.

Critics say the vehicles contribute to noise and air pollution in the parks.

Late last year, the agency issued a draft statement proposing to stick with the current plan. A final decision is expected by next winter.

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