With his frequent pronouncements about the beauty and value of national parks, and his admiration for how Theodore Roosevelt approached conservation, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in the coming weeks will have the opportunity to put actions to his words as details of the president's fiscal 2018 budget proposal materialize.
Conservation and environmental groups sensed about the worst outcome for public lands in general and the National Park Service and its 417 units specifically after scouring the budget proposal Thursday morning.
Though the budget was short on details, it seemed contradictory in places — pledging attention to the Park Service's $12 billion maintenance backlog while also calling for reducing spending on maintenance — while sounding a death knell in others by calling for elimination of funding for National Heritage Areas, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Initiative.
Overall, the president is proposing a 12 percent, or $1.5 billion, cut in Interior's $13.1 billion budget.
In a touch of irony, as the president's budget proposal was being dissected Thursday, the House Federal Lands Subcommittee was holding a hearing on "innovative solutions" to the Park Service's maintenance backlog, a hearing that was tilted toward higher user fees, private management of facilities and units, and the sell-off of federal lands deemed to be unnecessary.
“It was good to see attention to the parks maintenance backlog and to the Park Service’s funding challenges as the main cause of the backlog," John Garder, budget analyst for the National Parks Conservation Association, said of testimony delivered at the hearing by former Park Service Deputy Director Deny Galvin into how the maintenace backlog came about and why it continues to grow.
"Very unfortunately, the hearing came on a disheartening day when we witnessed the release of the president’s budget outline that, while lacking in details, would be damaging to national parks and their resources no matter how those cuts would be distributed," continued Mr. Garder. "We’d also like to see a serious and constructive bipartisan conversation about working together on an infrastructure bill that would meaningfully address parks’ repair needs. Instead, we again witnessed the distraction of ill-conceived ideas like using land acquisition money to pay for park maintenance and franchising out newer parks to the private sector."
On Thursday, both National Park Service and Interior Department communications staffs had few details to work with when presented with questions about the president's budget.
"This is the beginning of the process," said Interior spokeswoman Megan Bloomgren, explaining that the budget could be viewed as somewhat of an outline guiding President Trump's vision for "modernizing government."
"I think the White House has said mid-May will be when the details of the budget tables will come out," Ms. Bloomgren added during a phone call. "In the coming weeks, there will be continued discussions with (the Office of Management and Budget) about how programs should be funded in each of the bureaus."
When it was pointed out that many parks, in light of rocketing visitation and declining or stagnant staff and funding, are struggling to protect park resources and ensure park visitors have great experiences and that budget cuts would only exacerbate those problems, the spokeswoman said "that by eliminating programs that are somewhat duplicative or more appropriately funded locally, looking at some of the other regulations and other functions, the department will maintain its core function of land access and protection, but at the same time save taxpayers some $1.5 billion.”
At the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, a group comprised of more than 1,100 retired Park Service staff, Phil Francis feared the worst for the National Park System if the budget is adopted.
"While we have not seen how the Interior Department’s overall 12 percent cut will be allocated between agencies within Interior, should a cut of that magnitude be levied against the NPS and its parks, there will by widespread reductions in programs, operating hours, seasonal and permanent staff, and visitor services," he said. "Never before have cuts of this magnitude been made. These cuts are extreme and will result in the degradation of park resources owned by all Americans."
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership couldn't help but reference President Roosevelt in decrying the Trump administration's budget blueprint.
“With the magnitude of these cutbacks — 12 percent at the Department of the Interior alone — the conservation legacy left to us by Theodore Roosevelt and others would be undone very quickly, and the effects would be felt on public and private lands and waters in every corner of the nation,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the organiztion. “Several key programs with direct benefits to local communities, such as the Payment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes program and the USDA’s Farm Bill service centers, would be significantly slashed. Restoration programs for the Chesapeake Bay watershed and invasive species removal efforts in the Great Lakes would be eliminated entirely.”