Election Aftermath: Will Dems Help the Parks?
The hangovers are finally subsiding, the confetti's been cleared away, all the balloons have been popped. So now the question is, what does the Democrats' takeover of Congress mean for the National Park Service and its nearly 400 park units?
How hard will the senators and representatives hit the ground running in January, and will any of their efforts be aimed at reversing the slow, downward slide of our national parks? The cynic in me says little change will be forthcoming, as too many other issues -- the Iraq war, Social Security, taxes, health care, immigration and on and on -- will dominate the landscape.
And really, Congress in recent years has demonstrated an incredibly ponderous approach to tackling national issues.
And that has left me wondering whether the only solace the park system will enjoy is the departure of Representatives Richard Pombo and Charles Taylor and Senator Conrad Burns?
To be sure, Pombo's departure can't come soon enough in the eyes of conservationists who helped fashion his ouster from Congress.
"I think the biggest thing involving the national parks is just the environmental community having successfully defeated Richard Pombo," Cathy Duval, the Sierra Club's national political director, told me. "Just having him gone is a huge improvement."
Pombo, for those who haven't been paying attention, was a major threat to the environment, having worked to overhaul the Endangered Species Act, open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration, and put 15 national park units on the auction block to generate money for the government.
With him out of the way, and with the Democrats now holding the majority in both the House and the Senate, you can expect to see a drastic philosophical change in how Congress deals with environmental issues. But will that translate into more funding? It's doubtful at this point.
Expected to replace Pombo as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee is West Virginia's Nick Rahall, the ranking Democrat on the committee, one who was an outspoken critic of Pombo's proposal to help reduce the federal deficit largely through concessions to the energy industry.
Rahall and Donna Christensen, a representative from the Virgin Islands who also sits on the committee, also wrote then-NPS Director Fran Mainella back in February with a request that she abandon the rewrite of her agency's Management Policies.
The election brought a double dose of good news to the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. Not only will a Democrat now chair the subcommittee, but its former chair, Rep. Taylor, R-North Carolina, lost his re-election bid. It was this committee that requested a Government Accountability Office report on the fiscal health of the Park Service, a report that was damning in the deficiencies it uncovered that were directly affecting park management and operations.
With the Dems in control, look for Representative Norm Dicks of Washington to assume the subcommittee's chair. Dicks told the Seattle Times that he would work to win more money for Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks, and if he moves in that direction, you can be sure other parks will benefit.
As for the House parks subcommittee, Representative Stevan Pearce of New Mexico will relinquish the gavel, and one name I've heard in talks about who will assume the chair is his in-state colleague, Democrat Tom Udall.
Over in the Senate, Craig Thomas of Wyoming loses the chair of the parks subcommittee, which in a way is unfortunate because the Republican has been a proponent of the parks and behind a drive not only to get more money in the Park Service's 2007 budget, but also to convince President Bush to budget more money for the agency in fiscal 2008. (Not only is Thomas losing his chairmanship, but he was diagnosed earlier this week with an aggressive form of leukemia.)
Who will take over the subcommittee? Good question. Senator Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, has been a parks proponent, but he's the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee -- under which the parks subcommittee falls -- and so likely will assume that chair. Currently, Hawaii's Daniel Akaka is the ranking member on the parks subcommittee, so the job could be his for the asking.
Things should clear up by month's end regarding the chairs. But then what?
The Sierra Club's Duval says don't expect a major infusion of money into the park system. Rather, look for more subtle changes in policy that will help the parks. Democrats, she says, likely will be more proactive than their GOP brethren to address mercury emissions, power plant emissions, and energy exploration that impact the parks.
And while the GOP has largely ignored oversight of the administration and its dealings, Duval says Democrats likely will infuse more accountability into Washington.
"You have a commitment by the new leadership to make government more accountable," she told me.
By now you've figured out that it's too early to say with any certainty what the Dems will do. Unfortunately, at this point, the best we can do is wait and see what happens in the months ahead.