Thursday, March 26, 2009

Call it the Pork Park: Congress this week passed a bill creating a national historic park in Paterson, N.J., ensuring years of funding for the downtrodden area despite objections by the National Park Service that the park does not deserve federal dollars.

The 40-acre Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park was one of scores of parks and conservation projects that the House approved Wednesday as part of the $8 billion omnibus public lands bill. President Obama is expected to sign the measure soon.

The park was included in the legislation thanks to the backing of powerful forces in Congress. Among its champions are the former mayor of Paterson who now represents its district in Congress and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi‘s chief of staff, who is a Paterson native. John Lawrence, Mrs. Pelosi’s top aide, made a rare appearance at a congressional hearing in 2007 that discussed the long-debated park.

Paterson’s 77-foot waterfall on the Passaic River was the engine of the city’s industry, which has been called one of the birthplaces of America’s Industrial Revolution.

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., New Jersey Democrat and former mayor of Paterson, said creating a park around the waterfall would demonstrate “the value that urban parks bring to the national park system and to local communities.”

Opponents say locals are trying to tap into federal money because the area was unable to raise matching funds to earn an economic development grant. Although not a traditional earmark, the project is a way of ensuring a perpetual flow of taxpayer dollars to the park.

“What you couldn’t do under a grant program, by having people help themselves, you’re now going to make everyone pay for,” said Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, the top Republican on the House subcommittee that oversees national parks.

He said the park service is already overloaded with claims on its money: “Especially, for those of us in the West, I don’t want to pull region here, but we already have unfunded liabilities in the national park system.”

The park service hardly ever tells Congress no but says in this case that the park is not needed.

A 2006 National Park Service study said the site is neither suitable nor feasible, the park system already includes enough waterfalls and similar cultural sites, and Paterson is already well-protected by the state. The study noted that Niagara Falls has never been designated a national park because it is protected by New York.

“Nothing has changed in the [park service’s] position from the 2006 Special Resource Study,” said Phil Sheridan, a spokesman for the agency’s northeast region. “Of course, Congress has the authority to legislate new national park sites, and should they do so in the case of Paterson, the NPS will follow their direction.”

Supporters blamed politics for the park service’s opposition.

“I think what the issue was is the Bush administration was fundamentally opposed to adding new units to the national parks inventory,” said Caley Gray, a spokesman for Mr. Pascrell.

The omnibus lands bill passed the Senate by a 77-20 vote last week and the House by a 285-140 vote Wednesday, but only after Democrats used parliamentary tactics to prevent Republicans from offering amendments in the House.

Conservative Republicans first launched an attack on the legislation in 2007 when it went through the House Committee on Natural Resources, pointing to Mr. Lawrence, Mrs. Pelosi’s chief of staff, as an untoward influence.

“How could something so blatantly counterproductive be forced onto the floor you ask? … John Lawrence, Chief of Staff for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Paterson, N.J. native,” Rep. John Campbell, California Republican, wrote in an October 24, 2007, blog post.

Mr. Lawrence said Monday that he had no role in writing the original legislation, or lobbying for it, and was not part of any effort to include the measure in the omnibus lands bill.

He said he did not understand Mr. Campbell’s implications and that he made an appearance at the 2007 hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources because he was joining friends from Paterson and had been a staff director on the committee for seven years.

“I think it is an unusual and unseemly inference,” Mr. Lawrence said Monday.

The measure included in the omnibus package is a sized-down version of the original proposal, which would have allotted $22 million upfront for the project and $1 million per year thereafter.

“The bill as it is written now is significantly different than what was originally proposed,” he said.

The redrafted measure excludes a historic Negro League stadium adjacent to the site and pares back the request for a committee to oversee the park service’s administration of the site. The lands bill also reduced the park’s proposed size from 109 acres to 40 acres.

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