Bush visits Santa Mountains to pitch plan for upgrading national parks

Friday, August 15th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) _ President Bush reported advances Friday on his campaign promise to spend nearly $5 billion on upgrading national parks, but his critics said he was exaggerating the progress and they lambasted his environmental record.

Bush helicoptered up the Southern California coast from Newport Beach to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, a patchwork of federal, state and private lands along the coast northwest of Los Angeles. The distinctive, rugged hills are perhaps most familiar as the setting for the television show ``MASH.''

Bush helped restore native plants high in the hills while promoting his campaign to spruce up the nation's national park system.

``Your enthusiasm is contagious,'' Bush told volunteers after touring a nursery that grows native grasses and plants.

Critics said the presidential appearance only underscored what they called Bush's ``dismal'' record on the environment, as well as the ``misleading'' nature of his effort to address a multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog in the parks.

During his presidential campaign, Bush promised to eliminate within five years the National Park Service's $4.9 billion maintenance and repair backlog.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton gave Bush a report last month that she said represented significant progress and $2.9 billion spent toward reducing the backlog.

The White House said Friday that 900 maintenance projects had been completed during Bush's term, with 900 more under way or planned.

But the National Parks Conservation Association called the $2.9 billion figure ``misleading,'' because it counts existing spending, not just new spending devoted toward chipping away at the backlog.

The association said the administration had devoted just $370 million in new funds toward the backlog over the past three years.

``In fact, the president's budget is contributing to the backlog by ignoring the annual needs of the national parks, which continue to operate with only two-thirds of the needed funding,'' the association said in a statement.

At the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, an annual shortfall of more than $6 million is ``crippling the ability of the National Park Service to protect the park,'' the group said.

Democratic presidential candidates seized on Bush's appearance to attack him on the environment _ an issue White House aides fear is a political liability.

An April Washington Post-ABC News poll found that Democrats held a 2-1 advantage over Bush when people were asked whom they trust to do a better job on the environment. Friday's appearance was one of several environmental events this month meant to bolster his standing on the environment.

``When it comes to the environment, no amount of glitz can disguise the administration's dismal record of championing corporate interests over sound science and environmental stewardship,'' said Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean.

According to Dean, the Bush administration has addressed less than 10 percent of the park maintenance backlog.

But James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the Southern California recreation area and other parks were getting ``substantial new resources to address the backlog.''

Equally important, the administration was employing new tools to track the parks inventory, Connaughton said in a telephone interview this week.

Yet Bush administration officials conceded recently they really can't say how much fixing remains to be done.

``We've really got to get an honest handle on what the maintenance backlog is,'' Donald Murphy, the Park Service's deputy director, told a Senate subcommittee in July.

Bush's eighth trip to the most populous state was devoted largely to his own re-election, with a Friday afternoon fund raiser netting him some $1 million _ on top of the $1 million he collected Thursday night.