WASHINGTON – The National Park Service (search) on Thursday ordered an immediate halt to all foreign travel by employees after lawmakers criticized plans to cut back services and hours at some parks this summer.
Director Fran Mainella also promised to trim 10 percent from domestic travel and to require that either she or Interior Secretary Gale Norton approve all major projects.
"All agencies have to face increased costs - we're no different," Mainella told lawmakers who oversee her agency's budget. "It's a balancing act ... just like a home."
Her assurances couldn't head off intense questioning and withering criticisms from Republicans and Democrats on a House Appropriations subcommittee over Park Service spending.
"Who's minding the store here? Are you all sort of oblivious to what's going on?" Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., asked Mainella.
"I think you can sense ... there's a great deal of frustration here," echoed Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz. "Either you're not asking for enough money, or you're not managing well." A few minutes later, Kolbe answered his own question.
"It seems to me what we're dealing with is a management and priority problem with the Park Service," he said.
The spending reforms were announced after Rep. Charles Taylor (search), R-N.C., the subcommittee's chairman, and Rep. Norman Dicks (search), D-Wash., its senior Democrat, questioned $94 million that the Park Service's employees spent on travel the past two years.
Most of that was for domestic travel, according to Mainella. But $650,000 was spent in 2002 and $300,000 in 2003 for foreign travel, she said.
This year, $100,000 has been spent on foreign travel - but there will be no more, she said.
Lawmakers also complained that they hadn't been consulted, as required, for some projects costing more than $5 million. That includes paying for most of a proposed $100 million visitor center and museum complex at Valley Forge Historical Park (search) in Pennsylvania.
They also were critical of the agency's plans for cuts in services at parks despite steady budget increases for much of the past decade.
Those concerns were raised after former Park Service employees earlier this month released an e-mailed memo suggesting the Park Service was planning to keep some parks and visitor centers open fewer hours, or scale back on guided ranger tours and lifeguards at some beaches.
The Park Service is asking for $102 million more than was approved by Congress for this year's Park Service budget of $2.56 billion. That includes $1.6 billion for park operations, with the rest going toward building projects, acquiring land, historic preservation and maintenance.
"You can't sit here and tell me, across this table, that services aren't eroding in the national parks," Dicks told Mainella.
Mainella maintained the Park Service was working hard to constantly improve management and to make sure dollars were spent well.
She said the Park Service was requesting $22 million for specific park operations, to cover growing expenses in areas such as security, law enforcement, maintenance and repairs.