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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Dirk Kempthorne
Secretary of the Interior

February 12, 2007

Dirk Kempthorne
Good afternoon. I am pleased to be here today on Ask the White House to discuss the President’s National Park Centennial Initiative.

I just returned from the Lincoln Memorial where I placed a wreath in honor of the 198th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The Lincoln Memorial, one of our most treasured national icons is protected and maintained by the National Park Service.

We will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the national park system in 2016, and President Bush is committed to ensuring that this 100th anniversary will indeed be a historic anniversary.

Last summer, the President announced a 10-year effort to enhance our parks called the National Park Centennial Initiative. He instructed me to identify signature projects and establish performance goals for the next decade that, when achieved, will ensure our parks continue to be places where children and families can learn about our nation’s great history, enjoy quality time together and have fun outdoors.

The goal of the Centennial Initiative is not to rollout some master plan to improve our parks in 2016, but rather to roll up our sleeves now and complete projects before we celebrate victory and a much-improved national park system in 2016.

The President’s 2008 budget inaugurates this historic, multi-year investment with the largest ever budget for operations and programs that benefit our national parks — $2.3 billion.

Park superintendents, who are on the front lines of our national park system, have repeatedly told me their greatest need and highest priority is to increase funding for daily operations.

Park advocates like the National Parks Conservation Association have encouraged the American public to champion spending increases for our parks of $250 million above the 2006 budget.

We went even further than that in the President’s budget. We are proposing an additional $258 million for park operations, the largest increase in the history of the park system.

Included in the operating budget, the President is proposing $100 million a year over the next decade – or $1 billion – as part of what we are calling our Centennial Commitment to improve both our park infrastructure and the experiences of people visiting the parks.

This will allow us to hire 3,000 more seasonal national park rangers, guides and maintenance workers. It will enable us to repair buildings, improve landscapes, and enroll more children in the Junior Ranger program. We will also expand interactive experiences that will appeal to today’s technologically savvy young people

In addition to the record operating budget, the President is proposing $100 million a year in funding over the next decade – or another $1 billion – under the Centennial Challenge to provide matching funds for contributions made by Americans for projects to improve our parks and to open the way for better visitor experiences.

Unlike the Centennial Commitment funds, these funds will be made available to match donations from the American people to support these projects. As private partners match the amount, this will mean at least an additional $1 billion in contributions to improve our parks.

Taken as a whole, the funds for the Centennial Challenge initiative and the anticipated contributions of the American people will total a minimum of $3 billion over the next decade, allowing for an even brighter future for our beloved national parks.

I am now happy to take your questions.

Joanna, from Sarasota writes:
In brief, what exactly is the President's proposed plan in restoring the National Parks? Does the plan include marshes and other preserves?

Dirk Kempthorne
The National Park Centennial Initiative is a 10-year effort that would increase government and philanthropic investment in America’s national parks leading up to the 2016 National Park Service Centennial. This means more uniformed employees in parks during busy seasons and dramatic funding increases for maintenance and facility repairs. We anticipate an additional 3000 seasonal national park rangers, guides and maintenance workers in the parks once the Centennial Initiative is funded. This budget represents a new plateau of funding that will serve as our benchmark in future years -- it's the budget that keeps on giving.

Government will do its part over the next 10 years and will continue the tradition of philanthropy for the margin of excellence. National parks have benefited from a long history of philanthropy. Private support for our nation’s parks is as old as the National Park Service. Thirty national parks owe their existence to philanthropic gifts of land and money. Contributions have come from the Rockefeller family, the Mellon family and many more individual, and corporate proponents of parks. These contributions have helped to create new parks, provide state-of-the-art visitor centers, and other special programs that benefit the Nation and park visitors.

The federal government’s match of philanthropic dollars could result in over $2 billion of new investment in signature projects and programs. All national parks, including those with marshes, other wetlands and preserves, will benefit from this initiative.

Walter, from Vancouver, Washington writes:
How large an annual appropriation would be required to restore the National Parks to their peak operational funding level in current dollars? And, how much additional money is required to restore parks from their many years of underfunding and expansion of the Parks system without matching revenue? In other words what would it cost to again make the National Parks our proudest possession? Please answer without regard to current competing budget priorities.

Dirk Kempthorne
Walter, thank you for your excellent question. First, let me say that our parks remain one of our proudest possessions in my opinion because they speak to our heritage and our history. In addition, they are a uniquely American invention that has been emulated by country after country around the world.

The short answer is that the fiscal year 2008 budget would be the highest level of park operating funding ever, even when adjusting for inflation. However, the inflation index one chooses makes a significant difference in the extent to which the 2008 budget is greater than prior years. Another good point you raise is that there has been expansion in the Park System. Every year there are new parks added to the system by Congress and thus the size of the park system has grown from 34 units in 1916 to 390 units today, making comparisons between years is difficult. Likewise, the NPS faces many new challenges that did not exist in 1916, such as the increased need for law enforcement at border and Icon parks. The 2008 budget not only promotes a high level of operating effectiveness through the Centennial Initiative, but also promotes investment in special projects to improve parks through the Centennial Challenge and President’s Centennial Match of $100 million. I believe that the 2008 budget will ensure a meaningful, safe and enjoyable visit to our national parks for everyone. It represents an infusion of up to $3 billion that is unprecedented in the history of the National Park Service.

Zhanglixiong, from Changsha China writes:
Could you tell me what is the basic structure of Interior and functions of it?

Dirk Kempthorne
Thanks for your question Zhanglixiong. Actually, just two weeks ago, I hosted an official delegation from China that included the Minister of Land and Resources, and the Ambassador to the United States. We had a wonderful meeting and renewed a Memorandum of Understanding that will facilitate future cooperation between our two countries. When I was Governor of Idaho, I had the opportunity to visit your country on five occasions and they were very enjoyable experiences.

The Department of the Interior is the nation’s principal conservation agency. Our mission is to protect America’s treasures for future generations, provide access to our nation’s natural and cultural heritage, offer recreational opportunities, honor our trust responsibilities to American Indians and Alaska Natives and our responsibilities to island communities, conduct scientific research, provide wise stewardship of energy and mineral resources, foster sound use of land and water resources, and conserve and protect fish and wildlife. The work that we do affects the lives of millions of people; from the family taking a vacation in one of our national parks to the children studying in one of our Indian schools.

Interior is a large, decentralized agency with more than 73,000 employees and 200,000 volunteers located at approximately 2,400 operating locations across the United States, Puerto Rico, U.S. territories, and freely associated states. Interior has eight bureaus, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Fish & Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Minerals Management Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Office of Surface Mining.

We manage more than one out of every five acres of the United States. We are entrusted with some of the most patriotic symbols of our nation, from the Statue of Liberty to Independence Hall. We host almost half a billion visitors a year, creating economic engines for communities across the country. Our lands include vast multiple-use areas. We manage 72 percent of Nevada, almost 50 percent of Utah, and 62 percent of Alaska. Interior lands and the Outer Continental Shelf produce nearly one third of the nation’s domestic energy. In 2006, we received more than $12.6 billion in revenue, more than any other department except the Treasury Department. We have trust responsibilities for more than 561 Indian tribes. We have thousands of scientists who conduct research on everything from volcanoes to coastline erosion. We supply the water that makes the West bloom. The lands and waters we oversee cover 12 time zones from the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean to Palau on the Pacific Rim.

I am continually aware of the impact of my Department on the lives of Americans. The decisions we make today on land management, wildlife and other resources will determine the America our children inherit.

Thank you so much for your question Zhanglixiong. If you would like to find out more about the Department of Interior, please visit and

Casey, from Cleveland, Tennessee writes:
Mr Kempthorne, Could you direct me to a website that will have information regarding the volunteer opportunities for the President's Centennial Challenge initiative?

Dirk Kempthorne
As part of the Centennial Initiative, we are considering “Operation Spring Break” which would bring students from around the country into our parks to volunteer each spring. These students would help us with trail restoration, cultural resource protection, and many other activities. As the Centennial Initiative unfolds, you can watch for these opportunities on the following web site: Thank you for your interest, Casey.

Michael, from Powell, Tn writes:
Why was the National Park program started? Thank you.

Dirk Kempthorne
Good question, Michael – the first national park in the world was Yellowstone National Park, designated in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant. Other national parks followed, and it became clear that these very special places deserved an expert organization to care for them – the National Park Service was created in 1916 with this mission.

But President Grant wasn’t the only Civil War General who had a big impact on the establishment of the National Parks. A chance meeting in a Montana stage stop led General Phil Sheridan to become a central figure in the 19th Century’s conservation movement--which, in turn, led to the environmental movement a century later.

After he met a mountain man on the road to Helena in May of 1870, General Sheridan turned into one of Yellowstone’s leading advocates.

Sheridan sent Army escorts on the explorations that led Congress to protect it. Later, he fought the Northern Pacific Railroad’s effort to monopolize the park. He called for expanding its boundaries to include the entire habitat of the park’s big game, leading a movement for what was then called “Greater Yellowstone.” When Congress cut off all Yellowstone funding and was prepared to end its preservation, Sheridan sent in the cavalry. His troops entered the park where forest fires had been raging for months. His men battled the flames, beginning the federal government's role in forest fire control.

Their successors developed the firefighting strategies and tactics that are still used today, including, a series of lookouts, communication, and lightning-quick responses. Army rangers introduced the idea of public campgrounds to control visitors’ campfires. The Army’s success convinced a National Academy of Sciences panel to recommend expanding the federal preservation of public lands. Thanks to the Army’s success today more than 600 million acres of wild lands remain in the public domain.

Today, 20,000 employees and 140,000 volunteers care for 390 national parks across the country that preserve important places (like Great Smoky Mountains National Park) of America’s history, diverse cultures and spectacular natural landscapes, and provide educational and recreational resources to people from around the world.

Cliff, from Brimfield, Ohio writes:
Secretary Kempthorne: What do you see as the biggest problems our National Parks will face in the next ten years? Are people respecting the parks or is there a lot of malicious vandalism going on? I used to be a volunteer in the late 80's and things were starting to happen that never happened before.

Thank You

Dirk Kempthorne
Cliff, first off, I want to thank you for your service as a volunteer with the national parks. The dedication of volunteers is critical to the success of the parks, and the 2008 budget proposes placing volunteer coordinators at 44 parks to promote this effort. To answer your question, vandalism at parks has been on a steady decline since 2000. However, many of the challenges facing our National Parks stem from the increasing urbanization of the areas adjacent to the parks. Remote areas of parks are now being used to cultivate large gardens of marijuana. Illegal drug trafficking organizations are setting up complex operations with live-in gardeners. A key element of the Centennial Challenge is dedicated educational programs for both park visitors and neighbors to combat the presence and effect of environmental crimes. Besides ensuring that our park resources remain protected, and visitors and employees enjoy a safe atmosphere, we must reach out and develop new means of delivery to make the park experience relevant to a changing and diverse populace. That population includes emerging minorities, brand new citizens and also the younger generation. The Centennial Initiative includes funding to expand the Youth Conservation Corps program, to enhance the relationship with the Girl Scouts of America, and to create new partnerships with nonprofit youth organizations such as the SCA. This increase will introduce a diverse group of youth to possible careers in the Federal workforce and get youth involved in the conservation of natural and cultural resources. The Initiative includes 3,000 seasonal employees to protect the resources and provide more ranger-led talks, interpretive programs, and guided walks and tours.

This will encourage more people to become stewards of our National Parks and engage in their protection. As part of the Centennial Initiative, we are considering “Operation Spring Break” which would bring students from around the country into our parks to volunteer each spring. These students would help us with trail restoration, cultural resource protection, and many other activities. Last August, I visited Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania and met students who were cleaning statues throughout the park. They were having a wonderful time protecting these beloved monuments. Each year more than 140,000 volunteers work in the National parks. We will continue to foster volunteer efforts by working closely with schools and student organizations.

Theresa, from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio writes:
I love the national parks and feel they should be maintained, but at a time of War, when expenses are bounding, why do we spend money on them to celebrate when we should be watching our pocketbook? Just as a family who is in great debt and can't make ends meet, should not be spending money on anything frivolous. How can this be justified?

Dirk Kempthorne
A very thoughtful question, Theresa – thank you – Yes, I understand tight budgets, the President has proposed to balance the budget by 2012, and we’re on track to do that. We all, including me, have our own budget constraints, but we still have to spend money on maintaining the things that are important to us. For example, I notice that you have Cuyahoga Valley National Park right in your backyard. In addition to beautiful natural areas, national parks reflect our history too.

As Americans, we preserve these special places to reflect values – like freedom, democracy and equality for which American patriots have fought and died throughout our history. Places like Gettysburg and Antietam, Valley Forge and Flight 93 commemorate our struggles and demonstrate the character of our nation. Today we honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and during the Civil War, he, in fact, insisted on completing the dome of the Capitol to further demonstrate that this Union had a future. Some were critical of such an expenditure in time of war, but he felt it was important that we not lose sight of the future.

National Park Service funding is much like a family’s budget, and is spent with great care to preserve and maintain America’s most treasured places. This is a mission that we take very seriously.

When we talk about “celebrating” the National Park Centennial, we are talking about recognizing our nation’s success in preserving these places, so that Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, which I visited last Friday, will continue to tell the story of freedom for generations to come.

Gregory, from Torrance, CA writes:
Dear Secretary Kempthorne: Many environmentalists believe that the only way to preserve our parks is to keep them as pristine as possible. Therefore, they believe the administration is allowing too much snowmobiling, tourist hotels, mining and logging. Comments? Thank you.

Dirk Kempthorne
I believe that the National Park Service’s mission is clear in its mandate to preserve these places unimpaired for the enjoyment of our children and grandchildren – to my way of thinking, this requires providing meaningful, educational, fun, appropriate activities for people to enjoy their national parks today.

To get to your specific questions – mining in parks is strictly limited to those few places for which Congress has specifically authorized it. Logging is not permitted, though we selectively remove non-native and invasive vegetation to restore ecosystem health and native species.

James, from Boise, Idaho writes:
Secretary Kempthorne, what steps does the new National Parks Centennial Initiative propose that will enhance our national parks, and what things have led to creation of this initiative? P.S. Go Broncos

Dirk Kempthorne

My family and I drove down and watched the Broncos in what is one of the greatest football games in history. They made us all proud.

President Bush’s challenge to us in launching the Centennial Challenge was that we utilize the next 10 years leading up to the year 2016, to not simply roll out on the day to 2016, some master plan of what we’d like to do with the parks, but to roll up our sleeves right now and get to work. We will have signature projects, signature programs, a series of activities and successes that take place between now and 2016 so that we truly can celebrate.

The budget that was recently released indicates the breadth of the President’s vision and commitment for this initiative. His 2008 budget has the largest operating budget in the history of the National Park Service and the largest one-year increase in operating budget ever in the history of the NPS.

One of the things that I’ve heard as I traveled around the country from the private sector, from the philanthropic groups that care deeply about our parks is that it was important for them to see the federal government step up and fulfill its responsibilities, I believe that this budget does that. To give you an idea about that increase, one of the groups that cares about our parks of course is the National Park Conservation Association -- NPCA.

They used the ’06 budget number as just kind of a measured point and they have been advocating that the increase for ’08 should be $250 million above that ’06 number. They knew that was an aggressive figure. They knew that was a stretch, but I’m very happy to say that the president exceeded that number. This is $258 million, above that particular mark. Included in that $258 million operations budget is a component that is $100 million. This is the president’s centennial commitment.

It would be there next year and it’s the president’s intense vision that that will be there each year for the 10 years leading up to the centennial. So that is a $1 billion investment into the centennial challenge. The president went one step further in saying that there will be an additional $100 million per year for the next 10 years that we will go to Congress and seek mandatory funding for, and that is to be in the category of matching funds so that we can then turn to the private sector, the philanthropic community and say, “We will meet you on a minimum of one to one dollar that from the private sector, the federal government will match you.” This has been very, very well-received by the private sector, the philanthropic community.

So when you take in operations, that element, that is $1 billion over 10 years, the matching fund from the federal government, $1 billion over 10 years and then the match from the private sector another minimum of $1 billion over those 10 years. That’s an infusion of $3 billion into this centennial challenge. It’s very, very exciting, extremely well-received by the park service.

As to what led to the creation of this initiative, park superintendents have repeatedly said that their greatest need and highest priority is to increase funding for daily operations. In addition, park advocates like the NPCA have encouraged the American Public to champion spending increases for our parks.

And I would just say that August 25 of 2006 just seemed like a great opportunity to have launched a 10-year effort. I’ll give you a couple of thoughts on that.

One, when John Kennedy was President, he said, “During this decade, we will go to the moon.” And therefore, there was a vision, there was an objective that’s very real and we achieved this as a country.

Now you have George Bush who’s saying, “During this decade, we will go and we will prepare our national parks, these wonderful gifts to America for the next century of magnificent parks for the American people.”

Teddy Roosevelt, who has played such as key role in the national park, he was bold as a visionary. And so I really think that now we have with this message from President Bush another bold visionary statement and - of the 21st Century that America can rally around. Go Broncos.

Charles, from Winter Park, FL writes:
Thank you for taking the time to answer some of our questions. How often do you get a chance to experience the National Parks considering your busy schedule as Secretary of the Interior. Thanks again

Dirk Kempthorne
Charles; I am excited to be able to talk about the Centennial Initiative and am just happy to have the opportunity to make myself available to the many people who are as excited about this as I am. I will be talking a lot more in the coming days about the Centennial Initiative, the background about it and what it is going to mean to the National Park Service and for this nation. We want America’s families to realize that these are their parks, that this is an opportunity to reconnect with the public and in particular our young people. This is going to be fun for us.

I do keep a very busy schedule as Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Charles. I have made it a point to visit the parks and talk to superintendents, rangers and park visitors.

I have visited 35 national parks since I became Secretary of the Interior. My first national park visit as Secretary was in fact the very day I was sworn in as Secretary, at the White House on May 26, 2006. I was also with the President when I visited my 35th national park, just last Wednesday, at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia where President Bush, Mrs. Bush and NPS Director Mary Bomar and I met with the press to talk about the Centennial Initiative.

Some of the other memorable visits include air boating in Everglades National Park, celebrating America’s Revolutionary War victory over the British at Colonial National Historical Park, meeting with the members of our “greatest generation” at the 65th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, and I also recall I camped – a little too close to bears – at Katmai National Park.

I feel very fortunate to oversee America the beautiful. I have always been a lover of the outdoors. As governor, I proposed the single largest appropriations for Idaho’s parks in state history and in fact, 30 years ago this year, my wife Patricia and I stood atop Moscow Mountain and exchanged our wedding vows, as I believe there is no greater cathedral than the great outdoors.

Kim, from Kentucky writes:
Secretary Kempthorne, Being a teacher, I am interested in ways that the designated national park upgrades might use various technologies to increase both experiential and factual knowledge for children. What can be done to make parks more interactive so that students might not only learn important concepts, but also form attachments to the parks? Thank You

Dirk Kempthorne
Dear Kim, First, my compliments to you for being a teacher. I believe teaching is a very special calling. I can still remember my teachers from kindergarten forward. That shows you the impact teachers have on our lives. At one time, I was a fifth-grade Sunday school teacher. It is fun when young adults come up and remind me they were in my class and said they both had fun and learned.

I’ve discussed with the First Lady, that with the Centennial being 2016—that the graduating class of 2016 are third graders today. I believe we can develop an outdoor curriculum for each year. For example, third grade may be the leaf collection—seventh grade the insect collection. We will be looking for suggestions from the educational community—including Margaret Spelling, Secretary of Education.

We will improve programs that connect America’s youth to their national parks. The programs will enhance resource stewardship, knowledge, and relevancy.

About 300 NPS sites already have Junior Ranger programs in place. Junior Rangers complete activity books filled with age specific activities for each individual park. The program immerses children in the resource and provides them with a more meaningful visit.

There is also a national online Junior Ranger program called “Web Ranger.” This web based program designed for children ages 9-13 contains 45 activities based on the country’s natural and cultural heritage. The program takes kids to parks that they might otherwise not learn about. Children from the United States and more than 70 other countries have participated in this program.

The NPS has partnered with others to produce Electronic Field Trips to NPS sites. More than 30 million children participate in several trips each year. The most recent one on February 13 will virtually connect children on a trip to Manzanar National Historic Site in California. The electronic field trip, complete with live tours, in-class activities, and an on-line panel of experts, will tell the story of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans sent to detainment camps during World War II. The lessons learned will serve as a reminder to this and future generations of the fragility of American civil liberties.

Dirk Kempthorne
Thank you for those great questions.

During the next few months, we will be seeking comments from Americans like you, who care about national parks, at listening sessions in every region of the country. I invite you to participate. After listening to your comments and suggestions, National Park Service Director Mary Bomar and I will further refine the details of the Centennial Challenge portion of this initiative and set goals to be achieved by the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016. We will present these recommended goals and actions to the President by May 31, 2007, but we will continue to develop a list of signature projects and programs to complete over the next ten years.

Through the Centennial Challenge, we will join in partnership with the American people to ensure that national parks across the country not only endure but also flourish. In doing so, we will ensure our parks inspire our grandchildren just as they inspired our grandparents in the last century.

For additional information on the Centennial Initiative, please visit:

It was a pleasure to be with you today.

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