Central Valley

U.S. parks keep sister ties in other nations

WASHINGTON -- Four years after the National Park Service curtailed international travel when Congress complained about foreign junkets, semi-grounded park officials are improvising to maintain ties with colleagues abroad.

The move saved money and political heartache, but it also complicated park diplomacy.

Now, officials at parks like Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon must find other ways to keep up meaningful relations with sister parks in other countries.

"Hopefully, we're not so arrogant to think that we in the United States know everything there is to know about the protection of natural resources," said Craig Axtell, superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

In theory, sister parks help each other out. Parks trade tips, swap rangers and find common ground. They are becoming more popular.

In October 2006, for instance, Cambodian and U.S. officials convened at Giant Forest to sign an agreement linking Sequoia and Kings Canyon with Cambodia's Samlaut Protected Area.

The five-page agreement calls for park managers to share law enforcement "methods and techniques," environmental education ideas, fire management tactics and more.

The agreement further anticipates "short-term personnel exchanges" between the U.S. parks and Samlaut, a 148,263-acre mountainous area in northwestern Cambodia.

In late January, Axtell and five other U.S. representatives traveled to Samlaut. Axtell said the Cambodian affiliation could help Sequoia and Kings Canyon to reach out to the San Joaquin Valley's sizable Asian population.

Last year, Yosemite officials signed similar sister park agreements with parks in Chile and China. Nationwide, about three dozen cross-border sister park deals exist.

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area near San Francisco is tied to parks in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. The John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez is linked to the one-time United Kingdom home of the Scottish-born conservationist.

"There are a lot of benefits," Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said.

"It provides us with different perspective. It offers an exchange of ideas."

Yosemite Superintendent Mike Tollefson traveled to China's Huangshan National Park and Chile's Parques Nacional Torres del Paine in mountainous Patagonia to endorse the respective sister park deals.

The National Park Service would not pay for Tollefson's overseas trips.

Instead, Tollefson had to rely on corporate contributions donated through the nonprofit Yosemite Fund.

"We've been fortunate, here in Yosemite, to have private funding for those kinds of trips," Gediman said.

Axtell's National Park Service team had its way to Cambodia paid for by the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, which helps manage Samlaut. The foundation is supported by Hollywood stars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

The foundation paid for two teams of Cambodian park rangers to visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon, and more Cambodian rangers will be coming this summer.

"Had it not been for that funding, it would have been very, very difficult" to travel, Axtell said.

In fact, the agreement linking Samlaut, Sequoia and Kings Canyon specifies that "all travel costs" for National Park Service employees "will be sought from funds" outside of the federal government. Other sister park agreements face identical travel constraints.

Axtell said the private funding makes sense, given the other pressing needs facing his parks. It would be difficult, he said, to justify using limited public funds for travel to Asia.

Such concerns prompted the curtailment in international travel.

In the 2003 fiscal year, National Park Service employees made 194 trips to foreign locations at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of $324,231, an Interior Department Office of Inspector General audit found.

Headquarters staff accounted for many of the trips, traveling to China, France, South Africa and Japan, among other countries.

Officials further noted a "steadily increasing number of trips" overseas starting in the late 1990s, according to the Government Accountability Office. Auditors warned that poor accounting and oversight made it difficult to accurately monitor the foreign travel, and lawmakers quickly amplified the message.

"It doesn't help to have a herd of bureaucrats spending goodness-knows-how-much public money for a junket," then-Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., told reporters at the time.

Facing bipartisan congressional ire, the park service's then-director Fran Mainella essentially banned foreign travel for agency employees.

In recent weeks some park advocates have quietly broached on Capitol Hill the possibility of allowing more foreign travel for sister parks. Stephan D. Bognar, a Canadian who oversees Cambodian programs for the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, helped make the pitch for liberalizing park service travel policies.

"The United States has something to offer to the world," Bognar said.

"We can actually bring park management experience to other countries."