As a candidate, President Bush promised to eliminate a $5 billion construction backlog in national parks. Yet under his watch, the amount of unfinished maintenance may have doubled, worsening an already bleak picture.
Bush was Texas governor and in a tight race with then-Vice President Al Gore when he made the pledge in a stop along the Skykomish River in Monroe, Wash.
It was 55 days before the election in 2000, and the Republican nominee was taking aim at Gore’s signature issue, the environment.
Bush blamed the “Clinton-Gore administration” for letting the maintenance lag in the 390-unit National Park System. He told a crowd of supporters that he would “eliminate within five years the National Park Service’s $4.9 billion major maintenance and resource protection backlog.” To do that, he said he would spend $1 billion a year in additional money over five years.
The agency has much to maintain: 22,000 campgrounds, 21,000 buildings, 17,000 miles of trails, 10,000 miles of roads, 5,000 homes, and 3,000 facilities that treat sewage or water.
Bush’s campaign had latched onto a 1997 estimate by the Park Service of a backlog that Congress’ investigative arm said a year later was unreliable.
The latest estimate _ from Library of Congress researchers in March 2005 _ put the backlog at between $4.5 billion and $9.7 billion.
The White House says Bush is “fulfilling his commitment to address the park maintenance backlog.”
“They claimed to have fixed the problem, and they didn’t,” said Blake Selzer, legislative director for the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group.
By next year, the Bush administration will have spent $5.6 billion on park maintenance and will have completed more than 6,000 construction projects. The Park Service is converting to a new inventory system for tracking repairs.
About $700 million of that spending is new money, Park Service budget figures show. That is far short of Bush’s $1 billion-a-year goal. His administration has stopped providing its own backlog estimates.
The National Park Service director, Fran Mainella, said Bush has at least helped focus much-needed attention on the problem.
“There is never an elimination of a backlog,” she told the AP. “I don’t ever think there’s actually going to be a number that you can ever label for backlog because it continues to evolve.”