The Scenic Route

Using the national parks as a platform catches voter attention.

Every special interest group has an archnemesis, and for environmentalists that man is Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif. The Sierra Club once labeled Pombo, who is the chairman of the House Resources Committee, an "eco-thug." The Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund refers to him as "Wildlife Enemy No. 1."

Despite the harsh characterizations, Pombo has never had much trouble winning reelection. His strong support for private property rights, scaling back environmental restrictions on public lands, rewriting the 1973 Endangered Species Act, and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge plays well in broad swaths of his California Central Valley-based district.

This year, however, his detractors believe they've finally found traction in their effort to deny Pombo an eighth term. The issue? His family's two-week national park vacation in 2003.

At first glance, a family tour of the national park system hardly seems like the kind of indiscretion that gets members of Congress in trouble. The facts are not even in dispute. Pombo rented a recreational vehicle, piled his wife and three children in the back, and proceeded to drive 5,000 miles across six Western states, visiting seven national parks-including Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree-and some Bureau of Land Management properties along the way. Since he met with various park officials during his travels, he billed the government $4,935 for the rental cost of the RV.

Pombo has argued that, as chairman of the House committee that oversees the national park system, the expenditure was entirely appropriate. If he had flown the route, rather than driven it, the trip would have been far more expensive. Besides, he explained, he didn't charge taxpayers for the vacation-related costs incurred by his family.

It's not an indefensible position, but the national park angle is too rich in partisan possibility for his critics to pass up. For nearly a century, the national park system has been leveraged for political gain, and there's no indication that it's about to change. Presidents dating back to Theodore Roosevelt have found the national park system to be an effective tool for burnishing their legacy; in recent decades, they've discovered it also offers an unparalleled repository of breathtaking photo ops. They're not the only pols to turn the park system to their advantage-members of Congress have used the selection and designation of new parks as another avenue for pork-barreling.

In Pombo's case, his opponents have shoehorned the national park/recreational vehicle flap into a broader assault on his ethics and spending practices, as well as his support for opening underutilized national parks to energy and commercial development. The Defenders of Wildlife ran radio ads mocking Pombo's trip as a taxpayer-paid vacation and outfitted their own RV for a tour across his congressional district to remind local voters of "The Pombo National Parks Tour."

All of this might seem excessive for what ultimately amounts to an insignificant amount of money. But to focus on the expenditure alone is to miss the point. The average citizen doesn't follow Congress closely enough to know that members such as Pombo shape federal policy on a broad playing field of issues ranging from fisheries and wildlife to forest reserves and national parks to marine affairs and mining on public lands. But the much-loved national parks system, with its rich environmental symbolism, is something most voters can understand. By focusing attention on Pombo's national park trip, his foes can give life to an otherwise abstract issue-that is, the specifics of his environmental record.

It's a clever strategy and one that is well-suited for Pombo's new constituency. California's last round of redistricting in 2001 dramatically reconfigured his district, adding some Bay Area suburbs where Pombo's views on federal land use are not well-received. These voters might not pay much attention to forest management policy, mining claims on federal land or to the minutiae of the Endangered Species Act, but when it comes to the national parks, that's a different story.

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