Interior aims millions at trust fund

The Interior Department's proposed budget for fiscal 2004 includes nearly a half-billion dollars to continue efforts to fix the trust fund system, a major undertaking that has gained top billing on the department's long to-do list.

The Bush administration is asking Congress for $10.7 billion for Interior — up $300 million from the fiscal 2003 request. Of that, $481 million — a $168 million increase — is designated to improve accounting and records management of American Indian money.

"For decades, Indian trust funds have lacked modern and effective accounting, management and financial control systems," administration officials wrote in the proposal.

Interior has held American Indian-owned lands in trust since the late 1800s. The department is responsible for processing and distributing revenues earned from oil, gas, timber and other leases on some 56 million acres. Its failure to create a financial management system to track the fees has resulted in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit.

"Fulfilling Interior's trust responsibilities is a No. 1 priority," Interior Secretary Gale Norton said in a Feb. 3 news release.

With such a large amount of energy dedicated to that goal, department officials have remarked that other responsibilities have been overshadowed. Interior protects much of the nation's natural and cultural resources. Next year alone, the department has been tasked with preventing four more species from becoming listed under the Endangered Species Act.

If it sounds like a tall order, there's more — on the information technology end alone.

Under the proposal, the National Park Service would receive a $9 million boost in funding for its program to create monitoring networks that house data on natural resources. The agency also needs to build a system to supervise maintenance work and measure performance in making repairs.

The request directs the U.S. Geological Survey to expand the National Water Information System Web site and enhance the geospatial data available through the National Biological Information Infrastructure.

The Bush administration has encouraged Congress to give Interior permanent authority to charge recreation user fees; the public can use the department's Recreation.gov portal to make campsite reservations and find information on other activities.

Despite the popularity of its Web sites and parks, however, Interior has failed to win approval from the administration in other key areas. Its financial performance remains at risk, with trust fund reform representing the biggest challenge.

"To improve its status ratings, the department will need to provide more evidence that its efforts are starting to show results," administration officials wrote.

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