Park Service makes progress on asset management, says GAO

The National Park Service has made strides in tracking the condition of roads, bridges and buildings in the national park system, but cannot put a firm price-tag on their maintenance needs, an official from the General Accounting Office told Congress Tuesday.

The Park Service has completed an inventory of assets in the nation's 388 park units, and is conducting an agency-wide survey of their condition, according to Barry Hill, director of Natural Resources and Environment at GAO. But despite almost two decades of work, the agency still lacks firm numbers on its maintenance backlog, Hill said at a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks, Historic Preservation, and Recreation of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In 1998, GAO estimated the parks had a repairs backlog of $4.9 billion, a number based on Park Service figures.

"That backlog [figure] is a moving target-it's a guesstimate," he said. "It is based on a guess on the part of the people running the National Park Service."

Donald Murphy, deputy director of the National Park Service, declined to estimate the current size of the backlog, but said the Bush administration planned to spend $4.9 billion on park service maintenance over five years, including $760 million worth of repairs in fiscal 2004. Murphy added the agency is installing a new asset management system that will allow it to better plan regular maintenance for roads and buildings. The system should be fully operational by 2006, he said.

Murphy said the focus on maintenance was not diverting funds from Park Service operations or homeland security needs, but other panelists expressed concern that the Bush administration was not adequately funding operations at the Park Service. For example, each park must pay homeland security costs out of its operating budget, according to Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, a Washington-based nonprofit group that advocates for national parks. The Park Service must secure national monuments and guard park territory against terrorism, particularly when the Homeland Security threat level is raised.

"It is estimated to cost the National Park Service $63,000 per day every time the Department of Homeland Security issues an orange alert," Kiernan testified.

Murphy acknowledged that the agency receives no funds from the Homeland Security Department. "We are in discussions with [Homeland Security officials] currently but the answer right now is no," he said in response to a question from Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo.

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