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WASHINGTON - Interior Secretary Gale Norton is looking to an old dude ranch in Grand Teton National Park to help ensure that the West's historic buildings do not simply rot away.

Under an agreement that she will sign Saturday, the White Grass Dude Ranch in Grand Teton National Park, which comprises 10 guest cabins, a lodge, a dining hall and a laundry building all on the western edge of the White Grass Valley, will be designated as the Western Preservation Training and Technology Center.

The center will be used to teach federal employees, volunteers and businesses how to rehabilitate and preserve historic properties.

"We have across the Rocky Mountain West many buildings, like ghost towns, and trappers' cabins, and we need to teach people the skills for preserving and maintaining them," Norton said. "It's important for Western history that we learn how to preserve the buildings that are the core of our history."

Norton noted that while most of the historic buildings in the East are made of brick or stone, most of the West's are made from wood. The Park Service has estimated that there are 250 abandoned and underutilized historic buildings in Grand Teton National Park alone.

The Park Service has reached an agreement with the National Trust for Historic Preservation under which the federal agency will allow the nonprofit organization to use the ranch, and in exchange, the organization will provide the money for the training center.

A main goal of the center will be to find new uses for the buildings.

"This is a great example of partnerships and adaptive reuse," Norton said. "We are talking about buildings that may crumble if we do not do something."

Tony Jewett, the National Parks Conservation Associat-ion's senior regional director for the Northern Rockies, praised the effort but said it's a drop in the bucket. The national park system is plagued by a maintenance backlog that Democratic and Republican presidents have let get out of control, he said.

The Bush administration inherited a $4.9 billion maintenance backlog and administration officials recently told a congressional panel that they are unsure of the current size of the backlog.

"Partnerships are good," Jewett said. "They are an ingredient, but this is a small part of the picture. This pales in comparison to the parks' needs."

Norton has said that $2.9 billion has been spent to reduce the backlog, but Jewett and other critics say a good portion of that has been used for routine maintenance.

"They are looking for an opportunity to demonstrate that they are working on the maintenance backlog, which they are not," Jewett said.

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