President's FY15 Budget Proposal For National Park Service Requests Slight Increase

President Obama's fiscal year 2015 budget contains a slight, $55 million increase for the National Park Service, though that number could swell to more than $650 million if Congress goes along with the president's vision.

Though the primary $2.6 billion budget proposal reflects a $55.1 million increase from the Park Service's current budget, the president is seeking another $608.5 million for the parks. That money, however, would need additional legislation supported by Congress.

Of the $2.6 billion proposal, $2.3 billion would fund the Park Service's day-to-day operations, an increase of $47 million over the current funding level but still lagging behind the FY13 budget amount by $171 million.

Visitor Services And The Centennial

Most of that additional $47 million would go towards restoring staff lost in recent years, particularly those in visitor services, in advance of the agency's centennial in 2016, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Tuesday in providing an overview of her department's budget to reporters via a conference call.

"We've actually put in an additional $30 million in the 2015 budget request for park operations, and that largely goes to beefing up the people side," she explained. "We have had significant cuts to things like seasonal ranger programs and other visitor services as the budgets have been tightened. As we gear up for the centennial and increased visitiaton, we need to address that need to make sure visitors have a good experience."

Congressional approval, though, would be required to fully implement the president's additional $1.2 billion request for the Park Service as it nears its centennial, the secretary noted.

"The budget proposes a three-pronged centennial initiative, a combination of budget and legislative proposals that will enable the National Park Service to attract and host more visitors, leverage additional private philanthropy in the parks, and help build the institutional capacity to maintain the parks for the next 100 years," the Interior secretary said.

The Obama administration is drafting legislation "and working in concert with the authorizing committees on permanent funding, specifically for the centennial," Secretary Jewell said. "That's the $1.2 billon over three years."

That $1.2 billion would be invested in high-priority construction projects in the parks ($200 million per year), to create a fund to be matched through private philanthrophy ($100 million per year), and to create the Centennial Land Management Investment Fund ($100 million per year) that would be used to fund projects in the national parks, national forests, or elsewhere on public lands.

Beyond that, Secretary Jewell said the president's proposed Opportunity Growth and Security Initiative could provide an additional $100 million for construction projects in the National Park System.

National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis was unavailable Tuesday to discuss the budget proposal. His staff said he was in Maryland for a speaking engagement.

Measured Optimism

The budget proposal was applauded by the National Parks Conservation Association, and met with measured approval from the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.

"It restores most of the cuts from the last three years," pointed out John Garder, NCPA's budget analyst, during a call from his Washington, D.C., office.

If Congress adopts the president's request, he said, the Park Service will be able to restore many vistor programs that have fallen by the wayside to budget cuts in recent years.

"That returns a lot of those programs that are important to the visitors and the experience they have," said Mr. Garder.

At the retirees' coalition, Phil Francis was less optimistic with what he saw.

“From what I know, there’s a small increase for the NPS operations," said Mr. Francis, who retired in 2013 after 41 years with the Park Service, the last eight of those years spent as superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway. "My view, and that of the CNPSR, we’re happy that the bleeding has stopped for now. But we are concerned still about the lack of capacity to serve visitors and protect the resources as we are charged to do, due to the lack of budget capacity."

Parks in recent years have lost a high number of jobs to budget cuts, he said, noting that when he was superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway he lost almost 25 percent of his staff. At Acadia National Park, he said, the superintendent lost 20 percent of his staff.

“We should not forget that, that we were underfunded before sequestration, and we were underfunded before this year’s budget came out," Mr. Francis said during a phone call from his North Carolina home. "Again, we’re grateful that there weren’t further reductions, but we still have a problem we have to work on and that we’re concerned about.

"At the Parkway we lost almost half our maintenance staff, and we still have 15 million coming to the park each year," he went on. "The responsibilities are still there. We just don’t have the people."

While the narrative for the president's proposal sounds encouraging for the parks -- "The permanent proposal also includes $200 million a year, for three years, for Second Century Infrastructure Investment projects to make a meaningful and lasting impact on NPS's deferred maintenance backlog by restoring priority park assets to good condition." -- much is predicated on Congress supporting the projects.

Not only have top House Republicans dismissed the president's budget, but on its face $600 million would make only a slight dent in the Park Service's estimated $12 billion maintenance backlog. That backlog number, however, is inflated beyond the truly critical needs in the park system, said Mr. Garder of NPCA. Roughly a third of that $12 billion, some $3 billion-$4 billion, involves "critical" needs address public safety and protection of resources, he said. In that context, $600 million over three years could make a sizable impact, said the analyst.

“I’d say that is significant. That is in addition to actual appropriations. We can see this year there’s $138 million for construction in the appropriations category," said Mr. Garder. "There’s some hope that Congress could get past the Budget Control Act, which opens up the opportunity for additional appropriations."

Even still, he said, "Congress and the administration are still going to need to work together...to figure out a longer term strategy to deal with the deferred maintenance backlog.”

Traveler footnote: An overview of the Park Service's budget proposal can be found here.