President Bush came to the snow-topped Blue Ridge Mountains on Wednesday to rally public support for a plan to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into national parks.
"Congress needs to hear loud and clear how important this initiative is," Bush said at Shenandoah National Park.
The president's National Parks Centennial Initiative, which he announced in his budget proposal on Monday, aims to generate up to $3 billion over 10 years. That combination of public and private money would serve as a run-up to the National Park Service's 100th birthday in 2016.
"I hope the citizens' groups who are concerned about the parks beat a hasty trail to the Congress and remind the Congress about what we have done, and what we need to do as good stewards of the parks," the president said.
Bush flew in Marine One to the park, where he and first lady Laura Bush participated in a roundtable with park service employees and spoke about his spending initiative.
Bush's 2008 budget would give the National Park Service its largest-ever funding increase.
In all, Bush allots $2.4 billion for the National Park Service for the budget year that begins Oct. 1 — $230 million more than he requested last year. That includes $150 million more for daily park operations. The plan would add 3,000 new seasonal employees and increase money for park maintenance — two areas that advocates say have suffered for years.
To spur private donations, Bush also called for $100 million in federal money to be spent to match citizens' contributions to national park operations — a move that critics said reflects a troubling reliance on private funds to pay for park operations.
Conservation and environmental groups generally applauded the parks money in Bush's budget proposal.
Ron Tipton, senior vice president for programs at the National Parks Conservation Association, said the president's proposal would be a significant step toward solving some of the parks' major problems, including crumbling facilities, growing pollution and lack of staff.
But House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said the new funding is largely the result of shifting money from existing important park programs, such as construction, into a new budget column with a new label.