One-thirteenth of 1 percent of the $3.55 trillion federal budget gets you funding for the entire National Park System and the agency that oversees it, according to National Parks Conservation Association analysts.
Yet that miniscule sliver hasn't stopped Congress from eyeing the National Park Service for cuts to help rein-in the $1.5 trillion federal deficit.
That one-thirteenth of 1 percent of the federal budget keeps places like Old Faithful and Gettysburg open for your enjoyment and education, makes it possible for you to walk the beaches at Cape Cod, Cape Hatteras, and Point Reyes national seashores, and puts on display the wonders of Mesa Verde National Park, Mammoth Cave National Park, and Dinosaur National Monument.
That one-thirteenth of 1 percent, however, is not enough to keep the Park Service from running roughly $600 million shy of its annual funding needs, according to the NPCA. Nor is it enough to whittle away the agency's maintenance backlog, which, Park Service Director John Jarvis recently told congressional committees, is nearing $11 billion.
Nevertheless, when congressional negotiators came up with House Joint Resolution 48, the latest vehicle to keep the government in business until April 8 under a Continuing Resolution, they cut more than $100 million from the Park Service's current $2.75 billion budget, according to NPCA calculations.
And now, with reports out of Washington that Congress is struggling to come to agreement on keeping the federal government running beyond April 8, there are concerns about what more will be cut from the Park Service budget. While the cuts so far have not affected the main parks operations account, they have affected other areas of the agency's budget.
"Our substantial concern is that now, as the White House talks with leaders from both parties and both chambers about what a final spending measure for the rest of this fiscal year will look like, we want to be sure that does not include a cut to operations," said John Garder, NPCA's budget and appropriations legislative representative. "That’s not something Americans want to see, particularly as people are planning their summer travels."
According to a chart (above) Mr. Garder developed to track the ongoing budget work of Congress, nearly half ($47.9 million) of that $100.8 million cut came from the Park Service's construction account. Another $25 million came from its Historic Preservation Fund, and $17.4 million from its Land and Water Conservation Fund.
The Historic Preservation Fund fuels the Park Service's Save America's Treasures program, which in the past has spent money to help conserve collections at the Thomas Edison Invention Factory, restore Rosa Parks' Bus, and even conserve the Star-Spangled Banner.
Still, the cuts to the Historic Preservation Fund and the National Recreation and Preservation account (down $10.4 million), which provides federal grant funds to state and tribal historic preservation offices, correspond roughly to what the Obama administration has proposed for the Park Service's FY12 budget.
Construction Funding Cuts Could Add to the Park Service's Maintenance Backlog
But that nearly $50 million hit to the construction fund is particularly concerning to the NPCA, said Mr. Garder.
"The $25 million in the Historic Preservation Fund, that reflects zeroing out Save America's Treasures, which, yes, the administation had also proposed zeroing out, so there has been some level of agreement that there are some places where cuts are less unpalatible, some places of agreement between the Congress and the president," he told the Traveler on Friday. "We’re concerned that one place of agreement is the construction account, particularly at a time where now we know that, as of Director Jarvis’ comments in front of the relevant budget committees a couple of weeks ago, we now know that the deferred maintenance backlog is almost $11 billion.
"... We’re concerned that construction being cut when the deferred maintenance backlog is only growing, that’s not going to help it, it’s only going to get worse."
Park Service officials were unavailable Friday to comment on how they're coping with the $100.8 million in cuts.
But there likely is some internal shuffling of funds being considered, if it is not already being done. In a memo sent in late February to all superintendents and program managers, Deputy Director Peggy O'Dell directed them to base their spending on the FY10 budget appropriation minus internal "management efficiencies" of about 1 percent of the agency's overall budget.
"At this funding level, there should be little disruption in park operations," she wrote. "Staffing remains relatively stable and resource protection and visitor services continue in FY2011 as they did in FY2010. ... In the event the National Park Service must absorb more substantial reductions, we will consider a one-time reprogramming of unobligated funds, including fee revenues, to allow for continuity in the operating programs. I will personally work with members of the National Leadership Council to make final decisions on reprograming to ensure that the impact on visitors, resources, and facility maintenance is minimized."
One Politician's Pork Is Another's Just Cause
The congressional jostling over the budget is, if nothing else, interesting political theater, one in which many politicians argue for spending cuts overall but endorse projects in their own districts.
One such example is in Wyoming, where the Republican congressional delegation, which has strongly criticized the Obama administration's spending habits, has backed a $107 million purchase by the federal government of roughly 1,400 acres of state-owned land within the borders of Grand Teton National Park. To her credit, Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming, has suggested that the Interior Department sell off some 500,000 other acres of federal lands to pay for the Grand Teton purchase.
The Grand Teton situation is representative of one of the dilemmas Congress faces in trying to slash the deficit. What seems irresponsible spending to some is viewed as not only proper but actually necessary by others in Congress. Cutting the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is used to purchase inholdings of private lands within the national parks, as well as adjoining lands that might be deemed vital to the parks, puts those lands in jeopardy, Mr. Garder pointed out. Earmarks, which are used at times to achieve the same means as LWCF grants, are growing more and more controversial in Congress, but they also play a role to protect the parks, he added.
“There should not be wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars on excessive projects that do nothing for our economy and that are unneeded. That’s the kind of waste that we should be targeting without question," he said. "However, some of those congressionally requested projects, at least for the Park Service, have had a great deal of merit. I can say that for FY11 there were a number of members of Congress who requested Land and Water Conservation Fund projects above and beyond those that were on the president’s list.
"The fate of those projects is still very much still in limbo. But those members of Congress requested them because they were popular with their constituents and because these are places where there are willing sellers, generally within the boundaries of our national parks and other protected places, where there is a real development threat," the budget analyst said. "If those project don't go through, there is definitely the threat that there could be development. And that is not compatible with recreation, it’s not compatible with public access, and it’s not compatible with good management. It’s very difficult to manage a place when you have someone putting trophy mansions in the middle of a national park, or subdevelopments in the middle of a national park."
Unseen Rot Within The System
At the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, Rick Smith said Congress's shaving of the Park Service's budget not only will create problems for local governments and tribes throughout the country, but also is akin to an unseen rotting from within of the park system.
"Aside from the deep cuts in the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the National Park Service construction accounts, most of the incremental reductions in the 2011 budget enacted through the current series of Continuing Resolutions are aimed at grants to states and tribal and local governments in the areas of historic preservation and recreation," said Mr. Smith, who chairs the coalition's executive council. "These are responsibilities given to the NPS through previous congressional action and will not be fully met during the rest of the fiscal year, and states, tribes and local governments will suffer from the effects.
"The cuts in the LWCF and the construction accounts, coupled with few cuts in park operations accounts, are the hallmarks of a strategy that suggests that if the Congress can make significant cuts in programs that do not immediately affect park areas’ abilities to preserve and protect resources and provide quality visitor services, the American public will be satisfied. The public will never know that other vitally needed programs are being starved to keep NPS operations intact," he added.
"...if park areas continue to be deprived of construction funds and money to purchase property scheduled for acquisition, they fall further and further behind in the Service’s attempts to provide safe, modern facilities and buy the land already inside park area boundaries. We do not believe the American people will find either of these results acceptable."
While this $100.8 million cut was contained in the Continuing Resolution now in place, what's impossible to predict is whether additional cuts are in store for the Park Service as Congress continues to grapple with the budget. Though arguments can be raised that the agency, as part of the federal government, should not be immune from cuts, Mr. Garder is quick to point out that the Park Service has been enduring cuts all along.
That can be seen, he noted, in the current operations shortfall of $600 million each year.
"All of our national parks together are costing us one-13th of 1 percent of our federal budget," Mr. Garder pointed out. "These are for the places that of course are protecting our history, places like Gettysburg, teaching Americans, young and old, about the sacrifices our ancestors made, places like the Statue of Liberty, which protects our heritage and equally teaches Americans about where we have come from as a nation and says something about what the future of our nation is in many ways, but places also like Old Faithful, where people can go and see some of the spectacular natural phenomena that people go to see, coming from arond the world.
“So when you have an agency that enjoys so much popularity, where so many American people go to visit, which protects some of the most historically important places in our country, for one-13th of 1 percent of our entire federal budget, that’s not going to solve our fiscal problems, and that’s not where Americans want to see cuts.”