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UPDATED | President's Proposed FY19 Budget Cuts Interior Department Again, Says Energy Revenues Will Rise


Whether the Trump administration's fiscal 2019 budget proposal is a boon, or a hindrance, for the National Park System depends on your point of view/NPS

Editor's note: This updates to include comments from National Parks Conservation Association and U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee.

President Trump's fiscal 2019 budget proposal, while calling for continued cuts to the Interior Department, would prioritize the department's move to open up more lands and waters for oil and gas development that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said would in turn make it possible to rebuild the National Park System.

But critics quickly dissected the president's proposal, with National Parks Conservation Association staffers pointing out that it reflects a 7 percent funding cut overall to the National Park Service, would jettison the National Environmental Policy Act, and proposes to pay for long deferred maintenance in the National Park System by "undermining vital environmental laws" and opening more public lands and waters to energy development.

Others pointed to the administration's infrastructure proposal, also released Monday, and said it represents "an outright sell-off of America's public lands," including the "privatization of entire national parks." 

During a 45-minute conference call with reporters, the Interior secretary said this year's $11.7 billion budget proposed for Interior was different from President Trump's first proposal a year ago in that this one carries an emphasis "on rebuilding our National Park System, increasing our recreational opportunities, repairing our Indian education system, and making sure that our greatest treasures are protected."

While President Trump's FY18 budget proposal called for a 13 percent cut to Interior, this one calls for a 17 percent cut, according to U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva.

Mr. Zinke, noting that the budget carries $1.3 billion for maintenance issues across Interior's public landscape, said the budget calls for creation of a Public Lands Infrastructure Fund that could generate as much as $18 billion over a decade for maintenance needs via revenues from oil and gas lease sales.

That proposal was ridiculed by Rep. Grijalva, the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resource Committee. The Arizonan said the fund would link "the future of national parks to the fate of Trump’s unserious 'energy dominance' agenda," adding that "(T)he proposal would eliminate public-private partnerships under the Centennial Challenge Fund."

At NPCA, fiscal analyst John Garder said, "(T)he president's budget proposal once again demonstrates that the administration is actively working to undermine our national parks and the environment on which they depend. National parks draw millions of visitors every year, and need more resources, not less. Choking off funding for staff who protect our national parks puts our country’s natural, cultural and historical heritage at risk."

"The Park Service’s $11.6 billion repair backlog is a critical problem that demands attention, but the administration’s proposal comes at too great a cost by undermining vital environmental laws and other public lands," he added. "Caring for our parks means not only fixing their roads and buildings, but also protecting their air, water, wildlife and surrounding landscapes. And yet, the administration intends to dismantle bedrock conservation laws and take away the public’s voice in these decisions."

Taking fewer than a half-dozen questions from reporters, Mr. Zinke didn't offer an opportunity for many questions into the budget, such as how Interior could weather the 17 percent budget cut described by Rep. Grijalva if enacted as drafted by the administration, whether the infrastructure plan would clear the way for transferring the George Washington Parkway to state or local governments as some said, or whether his vision of improving the park system's infrastructure focuses solely on existing infrastructure or would call for new lodges, roads, and visitor centers.

But he created a picture of a healthier public lands landscape, one with better facilities and trails in the National Park System, one with a bent towards recreation, not necessarily preservation as the National Park Service's mandate calls for.

“Clearly, the recreation industry is increasing. If you want to look at RVs, for instance, 95 percent or so of RVs are made in America," Secretary Zinke said. "About the same percentage of boats. And it’s our mission to make sure that our park system and public lands have an opportunity for people to recreate.”

U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, applauded both the budget and the infrastructure proposal.

Both proposals "include new ideas to address infrastructure and maintenance challenges on public lands. The Committee looks forward to reviewing these proposals, along with other concepts within the budget, to expand access and improve management of federal lands and resources," said the congressman.

The budget set aside $2.7 billion for the Park Service, with $2.4 billion of that total dedicated to day-to-day operations. Confusing, though, were conflicts on spending for the maintenance backlog between the president's budget document and Interior and Park Service releases. While the budget document itself said $257 million would be dedicated to whittling away at the Park Service's maintenance backlog, Interior's release on the budget said $805 million would be applied against it.

A Park Service release, however, said "the budget provides $99 million for repair and rehabilitation projects to address the deferred maintenance backlog as well as $113 million for cyclical maintenance projects to ensure maintenance is done in a timely manner and does not become 'deferred' in the first place." The release also said the budget "includes $157 million for specific line-item construction projects like reconstructing an unsafe cave trail at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky and replacing the roof of the Eielson Visitor Center at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska."

Interior Department staff did not immediately respond to an email seeking clarification.

According to Mr. Garder at NPCA, the budget contains "cuts to cultural programs, land acquisition and the Centennial Challenge, a grants program that leverages philanthropic dollars. It also includes flat funding for park operations."

The park advocacy group also was critical of the president's request for $1.6 billion to start work on a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, saying it would "threaten to divide communities, block wildlife migration and destroy delicate park ecosystems."

On the subject of Interior Department reorganization, Secretary Zinke said he hoped to be able to brief Western governors on the plan in "next couple of weeks." The president's budget does allocate $18 million to start the reorganization, with $900,000 dedicated to the Park Service. However, the secretary didn't think the overall reorganization would be that costly, saying retirements would help make the reorganization affordable.

"We don’t have to move a lot of people, or RIF (reduction in force) anybody in the reorganization," he said. "About 16 percent of Interior is retirement age today. In five years 40 percent of Interior is retirement age, so as someone retires, let’s say in Washington, D.C., we can transform that billet from a GS14 to maybe GS7 (pay grade) and push more assets to the front line where they belong.”

Officials at the Center for Western Priorities said the budget proposal was a sellout to the energy sector.

“The Trump administration just landed a one-two punch on our national parks and public lands. The president’s infrastructure plan would facilitate the privatization of entire national parks, opening the door to an outright sell-off of America’s public lands.

“At the same time, President Trump and Secretary Zinke want to cut the Interior Department to the bone, slashing the budget by 16 percent," said Executive Director Jennifer Rokala. "It’s clear Secretary Zinke has no interest in managing our public lands for future generations, just an interest in being a rubber stamp for drilling and mining.”

At the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, Phil Francis said the administration must devote more funding to the Park Service if it wants to protect the park system.

“Our national parks face real and significant challenges that threaten the integrity of the national park system. If the president and his administration sincerely want to address these challenges, they must start by adequately funding them and developing policies that support the mission of the National Park Service," he said. "Moreover, increased funding for parks must not come at the expense of other public lands and waters that would be irreversibly damaged if the administration's budget and infrastructure plan come to fruition. The national parks need more funding, but there is much more this administration must do to reverse the destruction it has wrought in only one year."

The Coalition also took issue with the proposed reorganization of the Interior Department, saying it "is not the best use of limited funds nor are efforts to circumvent the National Environmental Policy Act, which has not only served to protect our national parks for future generations but also our country as a whole."

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Yes, this makes sense. Lets cut the budget and open up more national park lands to energy development. This will solve all of our problems. 

Just two years after the National Park Service celebrated the centennial of the National Park System the National Parks are under the most sustained and aggravated assault in the 100 year history of the agency. We are in danger of losing our parks to developers, greed of concessionaires, neglect by the Department of the Interior and general indifference by the Trump administration. The danger has never been greater.  The Secretary has declared war on his own agency.  

The only thing holding the national park system together is the loyalty and hard work of the many fine front line civil service personnel who make up the backbone and muscle of the National Park Service. When all else has failed, it is the regular employees who man the park visitor centers, provide interpretive services and patrol the parks,  who stepped up to do their jobs and keep the parks operating and safe. But how long can this continue?

If we continue to cut the budget of the National Park System and starve the parks of people needed to care for them then we shall see. Energy revenues may rise but the parks will continue to deteriorate and visitor services will fail. The end result will be to enrich a few people and make the rest of us poorer. 

Thank you HarryB3570. I am in complete agreement with you. 

Anything that Rob Bishop applauds deserves a second look.

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