Acting Interior Secretary orders money meant for deferred maintenance projects and visitor services to be spent hauling trash and cleaning bathrooms
As the government shutdown drags into a third week, many national parks are straining under the impacts of the Trump administration’s decision to leave them open, but understaffed. Around the country, parks are facingmounting piles of trash and human excrement, illegal off-roading, and overcrowding. Now, in his first week on the job, Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has ordered the National Park Service to dip into money from entrance fees to keep parks open — a legally questionable decision that will deprive parks of key maintenance and visitor programs in the future.
During previous government shutdowns, administrations past have chosen to close our national parks in a bid to protect the resources within them. However, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who frequently described himself as a champion of access to our parks and public lands, ordered parks to close park visitor centers, but keep the gates open, a decision motivated by political optics rather than actually protecting the crown jewels of our public lands system. After leaving office on January 2, Zinke responded to reports of overflowing trash and human waste within parks by saying visitors should “grab a trash bag” and take out garbage on their own.
Rather than simply ordering our national parks to close their gates, Zinke’s successor, Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, is doubling down. In a memo to the acting director of the National Park Service, Bernhardt directs parks to use money collected as entrance fees to clean bathrooms, haul trash, maintain campgrounds, and provide law enforcement “until such funds have reached a zero balance.”
It is legally questionable whether entrance fee funds, governed by the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA), can actually be spent in such a fashion. Representative Betty McCollum, who oversees the House subcommittee which directs Interior Department funding, noted:
“The law is clear: if the federal government is shut down, our National Parks must also be closed to protect public safety and pristine spaces. It is not acceptable to use FLREA funds to keep the parks open, and the Department of the Interior’s actions likely violate appropriations law.”
By draining funds from entrance fees, parks will not be able to use them for their intended purposes in the future. According to National Park Service budget documents, in recent years FLREA funds were used to complete hundreds of critical deferred maintenance projects, hire youth to rehabilitate and restore facilities as a part of the Public Lands Corps program, and provide visitor education and outreach.
In its latest budget proposal, the Interior Department provided recent examples of projects funded through this program, including hiring youth to repair trails in Arizona’s Wupatki National Monument and resurfacing Sheep Mountain Road within Badlands National Park. Upcoming projects include installing new water systems within Zion National Park, replacing visitor entrance stations in Yellowstone National Park, and paving stretches of road within Grand Teton and Bryce National Parks — all of which may remain unaddressed if the National Park Service does in fact reach a zero balance.
Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service from 2009–2017, noted that draining entrance fee funds could prevent parks from completing currently scheduled projects. Jarvis told The Hill:
“Let’s say you’re generating, on an annual basis, $3 million in revenue coming into your park, and you’ve got a $6 million project. So you’ve accumulated that fund so that you can take that project on. You’ve got it scheduled out, you’ve been doing the compliance, you’ve been getting the design drawings so you can execute, say, in fiscal ’20. But that money is not obligated, it’s just in the account. This would potentially set back a project from when they had it scheduled.”
Unfortunately for our national parks, there seems to be no end in sight to the government shutdown. With each passing week, it is increasingly clear that keeping parks open risks the very resources they are protecting and creates lasting and costly damage. However, thanks to Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s shortsighted and politically-driven management, many parks may no longer have funds needed to undertake key maintenance projects when the shutdown ends.