President Trump's proposed budget for Fiscal 2018 was roundly criticized Thursday by the nation's environmental and conservation community, which said not only that it would "undermine" and be a "disinvestment" in public lands, but could lead to operational reductions across the National Park System. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, however, said it represents a "savings" for taxpayers.
"These cuts are extreme and will result in the degradation of park resources owned by all Americans. These cuts will impact economies of local communities and businesses as parks will be forced to close facilities and shorten visitor seasons," said a statement released by the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks.
The proposal calls for a 12 percent, or $1.5 billion, decrease in the Interior Department's budget. Interior Secretary Zinke, who last week reportedly said he didn't like the budget and would oppose it, issued a statement Thursday applauding it.
"America’s public lands are our national treasures and the President’s budget sends a strong signal that we will protect and responsibly manage these vast areas of our country 'for the benefit and enjoyment of the people'," Secretary Zinke said, adding that it would save taxpayers $1.5 billion.
How the Interior secretary would distribute the 12 percent cut across his many agencies, which include the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Reclamation, was unknown. A request for additional comment Thursday morning was not immediately answered. National Park Service officials also did not immediately respond to a request for how the budget, if adopted by Congress, would impact their operations.
Traveler stories in recent days and weeks (here, here and here) have pointed out the strains national parks are currently dealing with due to funding and staffing shortages in the face of robust growth in visitation, which reached a record 331 million in 2016, the third consecutive year of increasing visitation, while park staffing has stayed stagnant or dropped.
While the Trump administration's budget document said it would put an emphasis on reducing the Park Service's $12 billion maintenance backlog, it also said it would reduce "funds for other DOI construction and major maintenance programs," a seeming contradiction that was flagged by the Coalition.
"While there is a proposed increase in dollars for deferred maintenance, daily maintenance operations essential to the health and welfare of park visitors and resources would be cut and staff reduced. These extreme cuts will be devastating to what some have called 'America’s best idea'," the Coalition statement said.
At the National Parks Conservation Association, John Garder, director of budget and appropriations, called the budget proposal "a non-starter for our national parks, our environment, and our cultural heritage, and should be dead on arrival in Congress."
Mr. Garder pointed to the "deep cuts" it proposed for "the Department of the Interior and key EPA clean water and enforcement programs." Such cuts, he continued, "demonstrate how irresponsible this budget is. The cuts to land acquisition, water restoration and historic preservation programs are nothing short of alarming. Cutting this funding fails to recognize how essential these programs are to protecting national parks, our natural resources and our cultural heritage."
According to NPCA, the president's budget would:
- Cut the land acquisition program that helps protect parks from development within their borders. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is critical to protecting areas within national parks from commercial and residential development and enjoys broad bipartisan support. Cutting this funding fails to recognize the program’s success as one of America’s most effective conservation tools protecting national parks and other public lands important to Americans.
- Eliminate funding for the National Heritage Area program, a $19 million program that supports historic and cultural resource preservation at sites all across the United States through innovative public-private partnerships. They include Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, which helped fund a shuttle system that has increased heritage tourism revenue throughout the Niagara region and at local historical assets like Old Fort Niagara, and Augusta Canal National Heritage Area, which finances preservation of the canal with revenue generated from a restored hydropower power plant.
- Eliminate funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an important federal funding source that has provided $300 million annually for communities and park restoration projects in the region, is used to restore habitat for birds and fish, control invasive species, and reduce runoff from cities and farms to a improve water quality for the more than 30 million people that depend on the lakes for their drinking water.
- Eliminate the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Initiative. With more than 50 national parks in the watershed, eliminating the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Program threatens the overall health of the Chesapeake by stopping the progress made to restore native oysters, which help filter and remove pollution. These cuts would also stop the implementation of the bipartisan Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint - a historic and comprehensive pollution reduction plan for restoring clean water in the region’s streams, creeks and rivers.
- Eliminate the South Florida geographic program, which helps ensure clean water flows through Everglades National Park and Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge by monitoring and enforcing the pollution limit and working with the State of Florida on the Stormwater Treatment Areas, a successful state-federal partnership that has resulted in improved water quality for the Everglades.
- Eliminate opportunities for local input and environmental review of energy development near national parks and other sensitive areas. Administrative reforms such as the elimination of Planning 2.0 are already threatening the air, water, wildlife and visitor experience at iconic parks such as Zion, Mesa Verde, and Carlsbad Caverns, and further cuts to programs that facilitate a balance between energy development and park protection will only exacerbate these problems.
At the Outdoor Industry Association, Executive Director Amy Roberts said the budget would be devastating to rural communities.
“Outdoor recreation businesses drive spending and sign paychecks in rural communities, but they certainly couldn’t thrive if public lands and waters were closed or left without active management,” she said. “The places where America plays, and the products Americans use in the outdoors, wouldn’t exist without those other made-in-America jobs—those of the federal land managers, park rangers, and biologists who safeguard our lands and waters so we can enjoy them.”
At the Center for Western Priorities, officials noted that Secretary Zinke last week said he would "fight for the budget. I looked at the budget. I’m not happy, but we’re going to fight about it and I think I’m going to win at the end of the day.”
Greg Zimmerman, the Center's deputy director, said Thursday that, "President Trump’s budget cuts funding for America’s parks, public lands, wildlife, and water resources at the expense of communities across the West. With the Interior Department already under strain, this budget appears intended to break the agency. Secretary Zinke gets it. But if today’s announcement is any indication, the new Interior Secretary lost the budget battle with the White House. It’s a big loss for America’s parks and for the public.”
At The Wilderness Society, Cameron Witten, the group's government relations and budget specialist, said the proposal "would wholly undermine and disinvest in" the public landscape.
"Our public lands provide invaluable benefits to the public health and safety of all Americans, and to our national economy. They filter our air, they purify our water, they support vibrant wildlife populations," he said. "They sustain our fisheries, they provide resilient ecosystems, they are the foundation, the backbone of the renewable energy revolution that is going to help address climate change and power a clean, sustainable future. So let's be clear. This budget is undermining that heritage, the heritage of all Americans, our shared public lands, our shared outdoor and wildlife resources. And it makes no economic sense."