Last-minute passage by Congress of the National Park Service Centennial Act stands to have lasting benefits for the National Park System, and we can only hope that it's the first of much-needed legislation to bolster the health and infrastructure of the parks.
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, often a critic of expansion of the National Park System through presidential use of the Antiquities Act, deserves thanks for getting this measure not only through the Natural Resources Committee he chairs, but through the House and on to the Senate, where behind-the-scenes, round-the-clock work by congressional staff and the National Parks Conservation Association got the necessary support to see Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, bring the measure to the floor early Saturday morning, when it was approved by unanimous consent.
But ... if this is the best Congress can do to mark the 100th birthday of America's Best Idea, the national parks are in dire straits.
It's bad enough that it took to the very end of the 114th Session of Congress to finally pass legislation to both honor the National Park Service and help it work to whittle away at its $12 billion maintenance backlog. But to build the funding increase almost entirely on senior citizens and private donors is disappointing, concerning, and shameful.
Traveler has in the past suggested increases in the $10 lifetime pass for seniors; whether it should be increased to $80 is debatable. In a perfect world, there would be no cost for anyone to enter the National Park System. The units within capture the country's legacy in natural resources, history, and culture. They are learning centers and national touchstones that should be open for all comers to enjoy, embrace, and marvel at. Their value is reflected in the praise voiced for passage of the National Park Service Centennial Act.
“Today’s passage of the National Park Service Centennial Act, with broad support by Congress, clearly illustrates that national parks can be a place where Americans can unite. This year marks the centennial of the National Park Service, and what better way to commemorate this momentous year than by sending this bill to President Obama’s desk in his remaining days in office," NPCA President Theresa Pierno said in a statement Saturday morning following the bill's passage. "As the Park Service concludes its centennial year, there has never been a better time for Congress to help restore America’s national treasures. We hope the new administration and the next Congress continue this progress of better funding our national parks and directly addressing its $12 billion infrastructure repair backlog.”
At the U.S. Travel Association, President and CEO Roger Dow, upon passage of the House measure last Wednesday, said:
"The U.S. travel industry welcomes this legislation, and the good it will do for America's Best Idea, our national parks and monuments. ... Beyond simply housing natural wonders and cultural treasures, U.S. national parks and monuments are a boon for our nation's economic health. The money that visitors to our park system spend fuels local economies, particularly the 'gateway' regions within 60 miles of a park. Last year, this revenue supported more than 295,000 American jobs. What better reason to invest in improving and preserving our national parks during their centennial year?"
And at the Public Lands Alliance, a coalition of nonprofit organziations that supports parks, Executive Director Dan Puskar said following House passage that "(T)his bill creates new, long-lasting opportunities for grassroots, charitable organizations to collaborate with the National Park Service on educational programs and increase resources for volunteerism. Most importantly, the act establishes a Centennial Challenge Fund, building on almost a decade of successfully leveraging private dollars with federal funds to improve visitor infrastructure, engage youth and veterans, rehabilitate historical assets, and offer exceptional learning opportunities. A permanent Centennial Challenge Fund enables the National Park Service and its nonprofit partners to plan effectively to meet the most pressing visitor experience needs facing our parks in their second century."
This is not faint praise. Congress has in recent years shown scant interest in boosting park funding to appropriate levels, so any little bit is welcome. Unfortunately, the specifics of the bill don't merit that praise. While the National Park System is one of the finest products of American society and admired throughout the world, Congress's care and support of the system and its agency don't mirror that.
Back in January, the Government Accountability Office, at the 2014 request of Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyoming, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and former Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, reported on the fiscal fitness of the Park Service. It concluded that inflation was eroding the Park Service's budget on a regular and ongoing basis. From 2005-2014, the GAO found, total funding for the Park Service increased in nominal dollars from $2.7 billion to $3.1 billion, but annual appropriations from Congress actually decreased by 8 percent when inflation was taken into account.
One aspect of that report pointed to the $10 fee seniors age 62 and older pay for a lifetime pass to the parks and noted that only Congress could alter that fee. That GAO study, by the way, indicated that if the senior pass fee was increased to $80, it could generate approximately $35 million a year for the Park Service, based on 500,000 senior passes sold during fiscal 2014. Of course, that revenue estimate could also turn lower if the higher fee dissuades seniors from purchasing the pass.
Under the National Park Service Centennial Act, once President Obama signs the measure, those turning 62 or older can either pay $80 for a lifetime pass to the parks or $20 for an annual pass. Up to $10 million of revenues from sales of the senior pass are to go into a Second Century Endowment for the National Park Service to be managed by the National Park Foundation. Any revenues above $10 million would be deposited in a Centennial Challenge Fund for projects in the parks; those dollars would need to be matched by private dollars before they could be spent.
The act, finally, calls for an additional $5 million in federal appropriations to go each fiscal year from 2017 to 2023 to the National Park Foundation to be matched by private dollars for park projects.
"Congress has passed a good bill to prepare the National Park Service for its next 100 years with a foundation of better management and stewardship so that more Americans can access and enjoy these lands," Rep. Bishop, R-Utah, said Saturday. "Our goal with this centennial legislation was to enact fiscally prudent reforms that benefit taxpayers, and that’s the product we sent to the president’s desk today."
While the legislation does, finally, create an endowment fund for the park system, something that should long produce benefits for the parks, what shouldn't be lost on those who love the national parks is that this legislation is built on the backs of seniors and charitable individuals and falls far short of the revenue boost needed to repair the park system's infrastructure. It is not a congressional act of beneficence.
That additional $5 million annual appropriation for the parks from Congress is greatly disappointing not only when you consider the value (whether economic, cultural, historical, or in the form of natural capital) and public love for the parks, but when you realize that Congress in Fiscal 2016 spent:
- $1 trillion for a single Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.
- $255 million for two additional F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, jets with a notable record for coming in over cost and riddled with performance issues.
- $5.9 million for the East-West Center in Hawaii, "which is intended to promote better relations with Pacific and Asian nations."
- $5 million for the Maritime Guaranteed Loan (Title XI) program. In 2001, then-Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels labeled the program as an “unwarranted corporate subsidy.”
For many defense appropriations bills, $5 million a year is little more than a rounding error.
We can only hope that the next Congress works harder and more creatively than simply raising visitor fees to help the Park Service erase its $12 billion backlog and maintain the parks in a fashion befitting their world-class reputation.