Editor's note: This version updates with reaction from National Parks Conservation Association President Tom Kiernan and adds remarks from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar concerning the National Park System's maintenance backlog.
President Obama's FY12 budget request, if approved by Congress, would give the National Park Service a $2.9 billion budget, an increase of nearly $138 million above current funding levels.
While the budget would slow the agency's attack on its staggering maintenance backlog, at a time when doom and gloom highlights talk around the federal budget the president seems determined to invest in the Park Service and its 394 units. Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, in a prepared statement, said investing in the country was exactly what the proposed budget does.
“Taxpayer investments in national parks result in far more than the obvious recreational and educational dividends,” said Director Jarvis. “National parks also are tremendous economic engines for their gateway communities. In 2009, park visitors spent $11.9 billion and supported 247,000 jobs.
"The budget includes tough choices to cut spending in construction and certain grant programs to address our nation’s critical budget deficit," he continued. "However, a proposed increase in investments through the Land and Water Conservation Fund will step up our commitment to states and communities, many of which are facing serious cutbacks of their own."
Among the highlights of the proposed Park Service budget:
* The overall request totals $2.9 billion, up from $2.75 billion the Park Service has been operating on under a Continuing Resolution.
* Base park operations funding would increase $39.5 million.
* It would provide $360 million for the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is tapped to make land acquisitions for the National Park System.
* A $5.7 million increase, to $19.2 million, to fund youth engagement and education programs in the parks.
* $1.8 million for the U.S. Park Police operations.
* $3.2 million for cyclic maintenance and $7.5 million for repair and rehabilitation projects, two areas that can help slow the growth of the Park Service's maintenance backlog.
* $7.2 million to strengthen the Park Service's staff recruitment, training, and retention programs.
* $8 million for the Everglades Modified Water Water Deliveries project.
* $61 million for the Park Service's Historic Preservation Fund.
At the same time, however, a review of the details shows a lot of red ink:
* Nearly $81 million is proposed to be cut from the Park Service's construction budget, a subtraction that would directly impact construction projects, equipment replacement, and planning.
* Nearly $6 million in congressional earmarks targeted for projects in specific parks would be eliminated.
* Funding for Heritage Areaswould be cut by $8.8 million.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar acknowledged to reporters Monday afternoon that a freeze on new construction across the National Park System would slow efforts to reduce the Park Service's maintenance backlog, which is in the neighborhood of $8 billion.
“We have in this budget proposed what I consider to be a good investment in the National Park System. And we have made significant efforts over the last two years to cut down on that backlog, which, when I came into Interior, stood at some $9 billion. We were able to make some investments close to a billion dollars, from the (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) funds, and those have gone into our national park units all across the country, (and) the budgets over the last two years have allowed us to make some investments on that backlog," the Interior secretary said.
"But there’s no doubt that ... the existing backlog is in the billions of dollars. And so this will slow down the major initiative, which we’ve had under way, which has been a high priority for me, and that’s to address that backlog. We have to deal with the fiscal reality, we don’t have the money to deal with the backlog."
At the National Parks Conservation Association, President Tom Kiernan was supportive of the president's proposal.
“We’re pleased that in a challenging budget year the administration has prioritized investments in our national parks. From Yellowstone to Gettysburg, our national parks protect America’s heritage and deserve this modest investment,” Mr. Kiernan said in a statement. “We’re grateful that our national parks would have the funding they need to keep visitor centers open and park rangers on the ground. People travel from across the world to enjoy these special places, so this investment not only preserves our national heritage, but also protects jobs in communities that benefit from park tourism.”
It's doubtful, from congressional actions and discussions to date, that the budget will be warmly embraced by Congress. Already the House Appropriations Committee has targeted $51 million in cuts from the Park Service budget, and news reports have indicated some in Congress want large cuts in the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
“These aren’t just difficult times, they’re serious times, and you can just feel it in the air in Washington," Park Service spokesman Jeff Olson said Monday. "So yes, we’re grateful for the budget the president has proposed. There’s still a lot that we can do. We’ll meet the mission of the Park Service."
At the NPCA, Mr. Kiernan said proposed cuts in the Park Service's budget that have been discussed in the House of Representatives were disconcerting.
"The Park Service is already underfunded with an (annual) operations shortfall of $600 million,” he said. “We’re also quite concerned with the size of the House committee cut to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is critical to protecting national parks from the constant threats of development.”
With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War beginning to be commemorated, the budget proposal holds $10 million within the Land and Water Conservation Fund for American Battlefield Protection Grants. These grants, which require a dollar-for-dollar match with non-federal funds, go to help state and local governments and nonprofit organization partnerships purchase and protect threatened Civil War and other battlefields.
“The president’s budget will ensure that national parks continue to serve the 285 million visitors who come every year to relax in America’s great outdoors and learn about the people and places that make up America’s story,” Director Jarvis, who was unavailable for comment Monday, said in a prepared statement. “This is especially important as we prepare for the start of our second century in 2016 and begin commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which we hope will bring millions of new visitors to our more than 70 civil war sites.”