U.S. Rep. Brian Baird said national parks are being undermined by budget shortfalls and proposed mission changes that would fundamentally alter their purpose.

"It is, in my judgment, a national disgrace if we allow this to happen," said Baird in Seattle Monday.

He was speaking to a congressional subcommittee looking into funding issues.

Baird and U.S. Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., have sponsored the National Park Centennial Act, a bill that looks to eliminate $6 billion of the maintenance backlog in national parks by 2016 - the Park Service centennial.

Souder organized the field hearing to learn more about how cuts would hurt the Western states.

"They were asking questions where they were truly trying to understand how the National Park Service works - how the funding is allocated and how the decisions are made," said Chip Jenkins, superintendent of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. Jenkins was on hand at the hearing to provide information, but did not testify.

Through the hearings, Baird said he wants to gather enough information about parks' statuses to ensure that lawmakers set policies and provide funding "to guarantee they (national parks) will be preserved and maintained and enhanced for not only the current public but generations yet to come."

Chronic underfunding is one of the most pervasive challenges facing America's national parks and has led to diminishing services and severe cutbacks in personnel, park advocates and former administrators told the subcommittee.

Concerned for the future, representatives of the National Parks Conservation Association called on Congress to increase the National Park Service budget and pass a bill to eliminate a costly maintenance backlog.

U.S. lawmakers this year approved a $60.5 million increase over the $1.7 billion operations budget the park service had last year.

Advocates say the increase isn't enough.

Annually, there's a $600 million shortfall in the park service budget, which means it has only two-thirds the money needed to adequately run the country's parks, said Craig Obey, the association's vice president of government affairs. He attended Monday's hearing at Lewis Creek Visitor Center in Bellevue, Wash..

To make up for limited funding, parks have reduced staff and deferred basic maintenance, Obey said. That has contributed to a maintenance backlog estimated between $4.5 billion and $9 billion, he said.

According to testimony, Mount Rainier National Park alone has a maintenance backlog of more than $70 million. And Olympic National Park since 2001 has reduced its seasonal rangers from 130 to 25 in 2004.

"There is not a park here in the Pacific Northwest that isn't being forced to leave important jobs undone or staff positions unfilled because of insufficient budgets," Russ Dickenson, former National Park Service director, said in his written testimony.

He also noted proposed changes to the agency's mission, which could affect policy on how it preserves natural and cultural spaces and artifacts for future generations.

"Even if we are able to tackle the enormous fiscal crises facing our national parks, the change to Park Service management policies ... poses every bit as insidious a risk to the future of our national parks," said Dickenson.

Without better funding, the agency risks losing support from the public, as well as private organizations that have supplemented a waning budget, association board member Sally Jewell told the House subcommittee that is studying park service funding.

"The private sector and philanthropy expects to see a return on its investment. For when the private sector sees itself supplanting, rather than supplementing funding for our parks, they will retreat," she said.

'Small enough...'Fort Clatsop National Memorial, before its expansion last year into the new Lewis and Clark park, was small enough and new enough that it was not plagued by the maintenance backlog of many other facilities, Jenkins said.

Congress was "generous" in providing additional operational funding for the newly expanded park last year, funding that was supplemented with additional money from the park service director, Jenkins said. As new facilities like the Fort to Sea Trail and Station Camp park are brought on line, he will be looking for more dollars to make sure the park can adequately maintain them, he said.

"We've been very straightforward; we've identified the additional needs that the expanded park will have," he said.

The hearing was the fourth in a series that Souder has conducted around the country as a way to build public support for increasing funding for the nation's 388 national parks, historic sites, monuments, memorials, recreation areas and preserves.

The series will help build a record of the need that exists in the national parks, Obey said, and will increase awareness about the problems.

Washington state's Republican Rep. Dave Reichert and Democratic Reps. Rick Larsen and Jay Inslee also attended.

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