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Traveler's View: Passage Of Centennial Act A Good Start, And Hopefully Just The Beginning

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While the National Park Service Centennial Act will provide some badly needed funding for the National Park System, it's a small step towards funding the parks in the manner they deserve/Gary Vogt, Mount Rainier National Park

Last-minute passage by Congress of the National Park Service Centennial Act stands to have lasting benefits for the National Park System, and we can only hope that it's the first of much-needed legislation to bolster the health and infrastructure of the parks.

U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, often a critic of expansion of the National Park System through presidential use of the Antiquities Act, deserves thanks for getting this measure not only through the Natural Resources Committee he chairs, but through the House and on to the Senate, where behind-the-scenes, round-the-clock work by congressional staff and the National Parks Conservation Association got the necessary support to see Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, bring the measure to the floor early Saturday morning, when it was approved by unanimous consent.

But ... if this is the best Congress can do to mark the 100th birthday of America's Best Idea, the national parks are in dire straits.

It's bad enough that it took to the very end of the 114th Session of Congress to finally pass legislation to both honor the National Park Service and help it work to whittle away at its $12 billion maintenance backlog. But to build the funding increase almost entirely on senior citizens and private donors is disappointing, concerning, and shameful.

Traveler has in the past suggested increases in the $10 lifetime pass for seniors; whether it should be increased to $80 is debatable. In a perfect world, there would be no cost for anyone to enter the National Park System. The units within capture the country's legacy in natural resources, history, and culture. They are learning centers and national touchstones that should be open for all comers to enjoy, embrace, and marvel at. Their value is reflected in the praise voiced for passage of the National Park Service Centennial Act.

“Today’s passage of the National Park Service Centennial Act, with broad support by Congress, clearly illustrates that national parks can be a place where Americans can unite. This year marks the centennial of the National Park Service, and what better way to commemorate this momentous year than by sending this bill to President Obama’s desk in his remaining days in office," NPCA President Theresa Pierno said in a statement Saturday morning following the bill's passage. "As the Park Service concludes its centennial year, there has never been a better time for Congress to help restore America’s national treasures. We hope the new administration and the next Congress continue this progress of better funding our national parks and directly addressing its $12 billion infrastructure repair backlog.”

At the U.S. Travel Association, President and CEO Roger Dow, upon passage of the House measure last Wednesday, said:

"The U.S. travel industry welcomes this legislation, and the good it will do for America's Best Idea, our national parks and monuments. ... Beyond simply housing natural wonders and cultural treasures, U.S. national parks and monuments are a boon for our nation's economic health. The money that visitors to our park system spend fuels local economies, particularly the 'gateway' regions within 60 miles of a park. Last year, this revenue supported more than 295,000 American jobs. What better reason to invest in improving and preserving our national parks during their centennial year?"

And at the Public Lands Alliance, a coalition of nonprofit organziations that supports parks, Executive Director Dan Puskar said following House passage that "(T)his bill creates new, long-lasting opportunities for grassroots, charitable organizations to collaborate with the National Park Service on educational programs and increase resources for volunteerism. Most importantly, the act establishes a Centennial Challenge Fund, building on almost a decade of successfully leveraging private dollars with federal funds to improve visitor infrastructure, engage youth and veterans, rehabilitate historical assets, and offer exceptional learning opportunities. A permanent Centennial Challenge Fund enables the National Park Service and its nonprofit partners to plan effectively to meet the most pressing visitor experience needs facing our parks in their second century."

This is not faint praise. Congress has in recent years shown scant interest in boosting park funding to appropriate levels, so any little bit is welcome. Unfortunately, the specifics of the bill don't merit that praise. While the National Park System is one of the finest products of American society and admired throughout the world, Congress's care and support of the system and its agency don't mirror that. 

Back in January, the Government Accountability Office, at the 2014 request of Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyoming, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and former Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, reported on the fiscal fitness of the Park Service. It concluded that inflation was eroding the Park Service's budget on a regular and ongoing basis. From 2005-2014, the GAO found, total funding for the Park Service increased in nominal dollars from $2.7 billion to $3.1 billion, but annual appropriations from Congress actually decreased by 8 percent when inflation was taken into account.

One aspect of that report pointed to the $10 fee seniors age 62 and older pay for a lifetime pass to the parks and noted that only Congress could alter that fee. That GAO study, by the way, indicated that if the senior pass fee was increased to $80, it could generate approximately $35 million a year for the Park Service, based on 500,000 senior passes sold during fiscal 2014. Of course, that revenue estimate could also turn lower if the higher fee dissuades seniors from purchasing the pass.

Under the National Park Service Centennial Act, once President Obama signs the measure, those turning 62 or older can either pay $80 for a lifetime pass to the parks or $20 for an annual pass. Up to $10 million of revenues from sales of the senior pass are to go into a Second Century Endowment for the National Park Service to be managed by the National Park Foundation. Any revenues above $10 million would be deposited in a Centennial Challenge Fund for projects in the parks; those dollars would need to be matched by private dollars before they could be spent.

The act, finally, calls for an additional $5 million in federal appropriations to go each fiscal year from 2017 to 2023 to the National Park Foundation to be matched by private dollars for park projects.

"Congress has passed a good bill to prepare the National Park Service for its next 100 years with a foundation of better management and stewardship so that more Americans can access and enjoy these lands," Rep. Bishop, R-Utah, said Saturday. "Our goal with this centennial legislation was to enact fiscally prudent reforms that benefit taxpayers, and that’s the product we sent to the president’s desk today."

While the legislation does, finally, create an endowment fund for the park system, something that should long produce benefits for the parks, what shouldn't be lost on those who love the national parks is that this legislation is built on the backs of seniors and charitable individuals and falls far short of the revenue boost needed to repair the park system's infrastructure. It is not a congressional act of beneficence.

That additional $5 million annual appropriation for the parks from Congress is greatly disappointing not only when you consider the value (whether economic, cultural, historical, or in the form of natural capital) and public love for the parks, but when you realize that Congress in Fiscal 2016 spent:

  • $1 trillion for a single Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.
  • $255 million for two additional F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, jets with a notable record for coming in over cost and riddled with performance issues.
  • $5.9 million for the East-West Center in Hawaii, "which is intended to promote better relations with Pacific and Asian nations."
  • $5 million for the Maritime Guaranteed Loan (Title XI) program. In 2001, then-Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels labeled the program as an “unwarranted corporate subsidy.”

For many defense appropriations bills, $5 million a year is little more than a rounding error.

We can only hope that the next Congress works harder and more creatively than simply raising visitor fees to help the Park Service erase its $12 billion backlog and maintain the parks in a fashion befitting their world-class reputation.

Comments

Kurt, I was encourage by the start of your piece and then disappointed as you became critical with the "not enough" (my quotes) tone.  Its like the folks that complain about Trump and Carrier by saying he didn't save all the jobs.  This bill does more than was done before. Just as Trumps reversal of Carrier (and serveral others now), even before he is inaugurated, has done more.  To call it "disappointing, concerning, and shameful." is itself, shameful.  

Yes the Parks need more, and will likely get it.  But why do you think it should be at the expense of the military whose budget is already at/near historical lows as a percent of GDP.  Why don't you go after the massive entitlemen programs or other government agencies that have no Constitutional basis to exist?



EC, this bill is kind of like taking a birthday present to a party and giving it to the person who paid for it. As for the military, the U.S. defense budget represents more than a third of the world's defense spending, and is equal to at least seven other countries' total.

The defense budget is easy to point to because of the profligate spending on projects that either don't work (F-35) or items like $600 hammers. An argument can be made that there's a lot of unwanted defense spending committed to placate a congress person's district, not because the Defense Department wants it. Would the $600 billion defense budget really suffer if $5 billion or $10 billion was taken for the parks?

There is other wasteful spending, though it doesn't appear as rampant as it once was. I remember one earmark to study asparagus.

Beyond that, the administration and Congress had, at worst, four years to prepare for the centennial. They certainly could have been more creative in coming up with a solid plan to truly benefit the parks and they failed, in my opinion.

As many comments have noted, why not charge international visitors more than U.S. residents? Not sure I agree with that, but it's one possibility. Why not charge by the number of axles on a vehicle, gross weight, or the number of people in a vehicle? Why not create a box on tax returns to send an extra dollar or five to the NPS?

There would seem to be many ways to increase funding for the parks, and this bill doesn't reflect any creativity other than to focus on one age group. Beyond that, it won't seriously address the $12 billion backlog.


Not sure I understand your birthday party analogy.  

Yes the US represents a third of the world.  So what?  You want us to pull back to an isolationist strategy which is what led to both the major World Wars?  Until the other's pick up the slack, we need to be there. And BTW, I think Trump will be forcing others to pick up the slack.  Nevertheless, defense spending is at historical low levels.  Is the waste and poor programs?  Yes but the answer to that is to shift to effective programs not cut their already low budget.

Defense is a Constitutionally granted power.  Much else included in our current budget is not.  Take for example food stamps, currently a $70 billion program.  At the start of Obama's administration it was $30 billion.  Do we really have twice as many people in need of foods stamps today than when Obama took the helm?  

Could Congress have done more?  Perhaps, but to call "shameful" at least some incremental effort is itself shameful.  For a better birthday analogy, it's like someone bringing a present to a birthday party and being chastized because it isn't expensive enough.

 


Well Trump, if inaugurated, certainly won't make Russia pay it's share. First Presidential candidate endorsed by both the KKK and the KGB.


The KKK is meaningless.  Show me where the KGB endorsed Trump. I'm willing to bet that Trump will keep Russia in line far better than did Obama.  


He is bought and paid for by Russia. Most students of modern Russia know about Putin = KGB.

 

Few of my black friends feel the KKK is meaningless. Congrats on your privilege.

 

 


He is bought and paid for by Russia.

Really?  How much was he paid?  

Any of your black firends (or white or green or yellow for that matter) that thinks 5,000 idiots are meaningful needs to get a perspective adjustment.  That is less than 100th of one percent of the population  Obama did far more to hurt the black community than the KKK has over he last 8 years.  


The point is: When have the parks EVER been properly funded, if by "properly" we mean what the agency wants? No bureaucracy ever wants less. No matter the final budget, the Park Service (and the Pentagon) will always be pleading poverty, because that is what bureaucracies do. As for the contractors and suppliers, they will always be raising the price.

That is history, not opinion, from Parkinson's Law right on through. Bureaucracies expand by finding new missions, now at the Park Service a $12 billion backlog.

I don't believe in that backlog farther than history can spit. What I do believe is what I see in the archives going back to 1864. The parks were turned over to concessionaires, who now, as part of large conglomerates, are never satisfied with the status quo. There is your $12 billion backlog--feeding what they want, not what the parks really need.

As for the Pentagon, Donald Trump is right. We should not be policing the world at our expense, but again, tell that to the contractors and suppliers feeding off those wars. Did Barack Obama do anything to stop the process? Ha! Would Hillary Clinton have stopped it? Ha, ha, ha! Will Donald Trump stop it? Maybe so, but he will take hell for it every step of the way.

Peggy Noonan gets it right again. What the Establishment can't abide about Donald Trump is that he is post-Establishment. He is not ideological in the postmodern sense. He will not be guided by our rants and raves. He will merely call them rants and raves, and move on to what he feels is needed--a better business environment that can support the millions of new job-seekers needing employment. It's either that or they start throwing bricks.

The Park Service needs to make that case--as it once made it in the 1930s. It needs to turn entrance fees into a jobs-building program rather than a $12 billion backlog so nebulous it reeks of bureaucracy. How will you be putting people to work, Park Service, and we don't mean just yourselves? Speaking of which, you mean to say that all of your friends' groups, foundations, etc., etc., etc., can't find more work for people, too?

In Trump's view, voluntarism is an excuse for failure. Oh, look at all our volunteers! Yes, and taking the jobs you failed to create so the bureaucracy could survive. In Trump's view, affirmative action affirmed nothing but failure--in government's case, bureaucracy's insistence on loyalty over substance and initiative, again, why Clinton lost and why he won.

You want a better budget for the Park Service? Start with a director who is competent for a change. Read the history of those past directors who "got it," starting with Stephen T. Mather and his relationship with the railroads. He gave them the parks to exploit, but yes, he insisted that the public benefit.  Mather knew the art of The Deal.

From now on, it will be The Deal, and not The Backlog. If you don't like that thought, you don't understand the country. There nothing has really changed. We built the national parks on a business model. In preservation, no less than in business, the system has to "work."  If it doesn't work, it may not be the lack of money. It may simply be that the bureaucracy, having grown comfortably incompetent, knows only how to resist reform.

 

 

 


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