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The Park Service's very pricey privy

Outhouses _ rude and rustic though they may be _ are wonderfully useful contraptions. And when you need one, just about any outhouse will do.

Once a fixture of the American landscape, they were cheap and easy to build _ often slapped together with leftover wood and a splash of paint. And if you wanted to get really fancy, you could add a discarded toilet seat for comfort and cut a crescent moon in the door for light and ventilation.

Well, there are outhouses and there are National Park Service outhouses _ in particular the park potty at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in northeastern Pennsylvania. Let's put it this way: If you really need an outhouse, this is the place to go.

It is the prince of privies, the Windsor Castle of outhouses, with an estimated price tag of $330,000. Or maybe $445,000. Hey, with more than a dozen Park Service designers, architects and engineers working on this project for two years, who can be sure?

The Park Service conceded that it could have built it more cheaply, but wanted it to be nice. It is nice _ a two-holer, no less _ blended into the forest backdrop in the style of a grand country cottage.

You get what you pay for, and the Park Service sure did: the finest Vermont slate for the gabled roof, inch-thick cedar siding, a covered porch faced with cobblestone and capped with fabled Indiana limestone, a custom inside paint scheme (at $78 a gallon ) to match the outside hemlocks, and a profusion of wildflowers (at $720 a pound for seed) to frame the setting.

The best part is the working part: two custom-made, state-of-the-art composting toilets at $13,000 apiece. Keep in mind, however, that this is only an outhouse, so there is no running water and the toilets don't work in the winter. But don't despair: The outhouse was built to withstand earthquakes, should such a calamity ever befall northeastern Pennsylvania.

If the Park Service can spend this much on an outhouse, you might wonder what it would spend on a house. Funny you should ask. In Yosemite National Park, it spent up to $681,410 on homes for park employees _ which, come to think of it, is a bargain compared to the price of outhouses these days.

The Park Service, legitimately, has been begging for money in recent years, with billions of dollars needed for improvements to the overused, deteriorating parks _ and Congress has been stingy in response.

Yet the service will build and Congress will fund _ no questions asked _ boondoggles like this. Somehow, an outhouse seems the perfect symbol.

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