Editor's note: This updates with additional details on the president's proposal for national parks, clarifies budget numbers, adds reaction from the National Parks Conservation Association.
Recent years of relatively sparse federal funding have left the Interior Department and its agencies "in the ditch," according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who says President Obama's FY14 budget proposal for the department will reverse that trend if approved by Congress.
Under that proposal, Interior overall would receive $11.9 billion for the next fiscal year that begins in October, while the National Park Service would receive $2.3 billion to manage the 401 units of the National Park System. Additionally, the budget calls for full funding -- $900 million -- of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helps pay for land acquisitions for the park system and improvements to the national trails system, by 2015.
"The president's budget is one that starts getting the Department of Interior out of the ditch. It's a thoughtful budget, and one that we are very proud of," Secretary Salazar said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon. "The budget makes smart investments in things that we need to grow our economy, create jobs, and strengthen the middle class while reducing the deficit."
However, a review of Interior's briefing document (attached below) on the Park Service budget proposal shows that it calls for a reduction of more than 100 full-time employees to an agency that currently has 900 full-time vacancies, and would cut $3 million from the agency's operational budget under park management, and another $2.2 million under visitor services. How those cuts would be absorbed was not immediately clear.
"I wouldn't call it the robust budget that the secretary called it this morning," John Garder, the budget cruncher for the National Parks Conservation Association said Wednesday evening after reviewing the budget documents. "It's good, but it's not going to do the job of getting the parks out of this worrisome trend that we're seeing, a slow march towards reduced park operations."
In total, the president's proposal would provide $2.6 billion for the Park Service. All but $300 million would be for "park operations," the main checking account, if you will, for managing the 401 units of the park system; the outstanding $300 million is earmarked for programs under the NPS, such as the National Recreation and Preservation program ($52 million) that supports local and community efforts to preserve natural and cultural resources; the Urban Parks and Recreation Fund ($10 million); the Historic Preservation Fund ($58.9 million); construction ($160 million) outside that provided in the park operations budget, and; Land Acquisition and State Assistance ($100.4 million).
The budget also calls for a reduction of 92 employees under park operations, and 30 from the construction programs.
At the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, Deny Galvin called the proposal for the parks "essentially a stand pat budget."
"It's not far from what the Obama administration requested in 2009, the first Obama request ($2.529 million vs. $2.6 million)," he said in an email. "So from there out it's just moving things around. The modest increase in operations is mostly offset by fixed cost increases of $30.5 million.
"Perhaps the most newsworthy thing about these numbers is that they ignore the sequester. That should provoke some interesting reactions on the hill," said Mr. Galvin, a former deputy director of the Park Service.
Interior Secretary Salazar told reporters that if approved the proposal would "put the nation on a path to live within our means by finding efficiencies and making some very tough choices. It is a strong blueprint for Interior's mission."
According to a synopsis of the budget provided by the department, the proposal calls for more than $600 million in programmatic reductions to offset spending. It also would sustain current administrative cost reductions in travel, contract services, and supplies and equipment that would save $217 million.
National Park Service Director John Jarvis did not participate in the call and was not taking questions from reporters, according to his staff. However, the agency said the agency's $2.3 billion operations budget proposal represents a $48.4 million increase over 2012 funding levels. But at the same time, the agency would need to cut nearly $21 million from elsewhere in its budget.
"Key increases include $5.2 million to control exotic and invasive species such as quagga and zebra mussels, $2 million to enhance sustainable and accessible infrastructure across the National Park System, and $1 million to foster the engagement of youth in the great outdoors. These increases are partially offset by programmatic decreases to park operations and related programs totaling $20.6 million," a Park Service release said.
Under the president's proposal, the Park Service would receive $110.4 million in LWCF dollars, of which $60.4 million would be set aside for use in park land acquisition. The budget also contains $5.5 million specifically to purchase Civil War battlefield lands within national parks, with another $9 million requested to help state and local governments and non-governmental organizations "purchase and protect threatened Civil War and other battlefields" outside the park system.
Regarding the Park Service's construction and maintenance account, the proposal requests $160 million, an increase of $4.6 million over 2012 levels. "This includes $83.1 million for line-item construction projects, a $5.3 million increase from 2012," the Park Service staff noted. "It provides funding for the highest priority construction projects critical to visitor and employee health and safety and environmental restoration."
In recent years, the president's budget proposal as a whole has gained little traction with Congress.
Back at NPCA, Executive Vice President Theresa Pierno said the proposal was lacking.
“The National Park Service is experiencing deep impacts from the sequester and other continued reductions. This year will be the most challenging in some time for national park superintendents who will have fewer rangers and smaller budgets to manage each park from Yellowstone to Acadia," she said in a prepared statement. "Funding the operations of the National Park Service needs to be more of a priority than it has been to date. We're pleased that the president recognizes the need to reverse the mindless sequester, but it will take more than that recognition to address the reality facing national parks.
“The sequester has already cut more than $130 million from the National Park Service budget, forcing places like Yellowstone, Acadia, Independence Hall, and Cape Cod National Seashore to delay seasonal openings, close visitor centers, picnic areas, and campgrounds, and eliminate ranger positions that are critical to protecting endangered species and historic buildings, as well as greeting park visitors and school groups. Further cuts will only impair the national park experience."