Coalition says parks, refuges are understaffed

A coalition of conservation groups turned out in force Tuesday to shine a spotlight on what they said is a "chronic funding crisis" affecting the nation's wildlife refuges and parks.

At a news conference, Theodore Roosevelt IV, great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt and a chief spokesman for the coalition, said fiscal conservatives in Congress have opted for two management strategies where public lands are concerned: "wholesale poaching and trickled down to nothing funding."

Roosevelt, an investment banker, said he is "appalled and outraged by what Congress has wrought in the last two decades--almost all of our national parks and refuges are ridiculously understaffed."

The Fish and Wildlife Service, for instance, is threatened by an operations and maintenance backlog of nearly $1 billion and, as such, Roosevelt said, is unable to implement habitat conservation plans under the Endangered Species Act designed to ensure the survival of sensitive species.

Defenders of Wildlife President Roger Schlickeisen noted that, at $6.4 billion, "less than 1 percent" of the federal budget last year was allocated for national land management. And Congress' treatment of those resources is no better in fiscal 1999, according to the coalition, which said funding would fall $500 million below last year.

"We all read news stories about the projected federal surplus," Schlickeisen said. "If we cannot now begin to satisfy the unmet financial needs of our public lands ... when can we expect to do so?"

William Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society, said the budget "for our national forests needs to be turned inside out."

According to the coalition, called the Public Lands Funding Initiative, the Park Service also is both seriously understaffed and underfunded. The same goes, the coalition said, for the nation's wildlife refuges, many of which were established by Roosevelt's great-grandfather.

Roosevelt also charged Congress is "poaching" from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and leaving a $4 billion backlog of needed federal acquisitions. He also criticized the Senate for failing to approve an amendment offered to the FY99 budget resolution by Budget ranking member Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., that would have restored funding for key environmental programs.

"This is a grossly shortsighted abuse of ... our national treasures," Roosevelt said. "Americans must step into the breach and shout, 'Enough!' "

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