Statement of Thomas C. Kiernan, President, National Parks Conservation Association

Statement of Thomas C. Kiernan, President, National Parks Conservation Association,

Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, House Committee on Appropriations
Regarding the Department of the Interior and Environment Appropriations Act, 2012

March 28, 2011

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Moran, and members of the subcommittee, I am Tom Kiernan, President of the National Parks Conservation Association. I appreciate the opportunity to testify on behalf of NPCA’s more than 345,000 members to present our views regarding appropriations for the National Park Service for Fiscal Year 2012.

Mr. Chairman, we truly understand and appreciate the enormity of the challenge you face in attempting to set reasonable, responsible spending priorities when the imperative of significantly reducing the overall level of federal expenditures is driving the nation’s political discourse and agenda.  We want to thank you for the care you have taken with the national parks so far, and especially the money they need to operate and meet basic, fixed operating costs. We know and appreciate that you will do the best you can for the parks under the circumstances; and you know we probably will say it is not enough. I would like to take this opportunity to re-articulate the arguments and bolster the record as to why providing sufficient and even increased levels of funding for the National Park System must continue to be a national priority.
Ronald Reagan called America’s national parks, “the envy of the world.” Franklin Roosevelt said, “there is nothing so American as our national parks.” Created by Congress for the benefit and use of all our citizens, national parks are - like national defense - inherently and fundamentally a federal responsibility. While park friends groups and private philanthropy contribute a good deal for the benefit of several specific parks and units in the system, there is simply no viable alternative to federal appropriations to maintain these places that Congress itself determined to be the most precious and important to America’s story and way of life, intact and operating. 

The annual budget of the National Park Service amounts to less than 1/13th of 1% of the overall budget of the United States. Clearly the Park Service must re-examine its priorities and very carefully manage its financial resources to address new budget realities. We recognize that, as of the date of this testimony, you have been able to spare the critical operations account for our national parks.  However, National Park Service programs have already been cut by $100 million—reductions to beneficial, worthy and needed endeavors.  At this point, there simply is no fat to cut out before starting to remove muscle and bone.  

Park Operations: Adequate funding for park operations remains the top priority for NPCA.

The federal budget and appropriations process has been a roller-coaster ride for the parks over the past twelve years. The operations budget for the National Park Service was short-changed by multiple administrations and congresses until the annual operating shortfall reached more than $800 million in FY07. The result: a growing crisis with missing rangers, shuttered visitor centers, dirty or un-operational restrooms, deteriorating landscapes and historic artifacts, dangerous or crumbling roads and trails, and reduced interpretive and educational programs – in short, eroding resources and diminishing services for millions of park visitors.       

For FY08, with the 100th anniversary of the Park Service and the creation of the modern National Park System approaching in 2016, the Bush administration heeded our call and initiated what was envisioned as a sustained, 10-year program of incremental, $100 million annual operations increases intended to erase the operating shortfall and to put the national parks in their best possible condition in time for the centennial. This Centennial Initiative was supported by both parties in Congress—particularly the members of this subcommittee —and was continued through the next two budget and appropriations cycles, which included the transition to a new administration. Some adjustments were made in other sections of the Park Service budget to accommodate the operations increases, but things were still underway for putting the parks in healthy shape by 2016. While this infusion enabled parks to re-employ thousands of people needed for resource protection, maintenance, law enforcement, and visitor services, it still leaves an annual operations shortfall today of more than $600 million. That shortfall allows virtually no room for error or unforeseen natural catastrophes or circumstances such as unexpectedly large increases in the price of fuel and other fixed costs.

NPCA strongly believes the trajectory begun in FY08 – annual operations increases of $100 million plus fixed costs, carried forward by two presidents and recommended by the National Parks Second Century Commission – should be continued. While the operations increases Congress approved for FY08-FY10 have made a difference, the gains that were made can easily be lost. It is also important to put them in context. As significant as they were, by FY11, overall NPS funding had reached the same level in real dollars as had been appropriated in FY02.

A National Park System that is well managed, with park personnel who are well-trained, park resources that are protected, and visitors who are safe and well-served, requires investments by Congress. It is, of course, not a perfect world. We understand the reality of maintaining that trajectory in this fiscal climate, but at a bare minimum, we need to keep up with fixed costs so the hard-won progress of the last few years is not erased, and so we don’t find ourselves, once again, in the kind of crisis our parks and their visitors saw only a few short years ago.

Multiple studies show that every dollar invested in the national parks, at least four dollars is generated in economic value to the public. These reliable economic engines contribute $13.3 billion annually in local, private-sector economic activity and support nearly 270,000 private sector jobs.  For example, on March 14 the Idaho Statesman published an article citing a new study by Headwaters Economics of Bozeman, Montana, that shows the local areas around Yellowstone have 5,155 jobs tied to the park, with visitors spending $302 million in 2009. City of Rocks creates 86 jobs, and generated $6.4 million in visitor spending in the local area for 2009. Craters of the Moon supports 104 jobs and created $5.8 million in visitor spending in Idaho in 2009. In short, spending on the national parks creates American jobs.

There is a lot of talk on Capitol Hill these days about what the American people want and what the American people expect. Those phrases are thrown around on both sides of the aisle, often without much empirical evidence.  The American people are visiting our national parks more than ever, with more than 280 million visitors last year. That is more than 4 million above the average of the previous five years. The American people’s great love affair with their national parks spans time, region, economic status and political persuasion. It is not diminished by the condition of the economy. A recent Harris poll found the National Park Service to be the federal entity most admired by the American people, even edging out the Armed Forces and Social Security. Another recent poll shows that nine out of ten Americans have visited a national park and more than six out of ten have done so in the past two years. A bipartisan majority of Americans (73%) believe it is important that the parks are fully restored and ready to serve the country for another hundred years in time for the national park centennial in 2016. Despite concerns about the economy and the federal budget, 88% of Americans say it is extremely or quite important to protect and support the national parks. Few issues enjoy such widespread agreement and bipartisan support among the American people.

Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF):  NPCA supports full funding for LWCF, though we understand how difficult it would be for this subcommittee to achieve this when faced with a shrinking allocation. We believe in the healthy, rewarding recreational opportunities and the completion of existing national park units the LWCF was envisioned to provide. Though we respect that the subcommittee may not view full funding as realistic in this fiscal climate, LWCF should not be drastically reduced to the point recommended, for example, in HR 1. Arguing that no funds for land acquisition under LWCF should be provided to the Park Service until the maintenance backlog is eliminated is comparing apples to oranges.

Removing privately-owned inholdings from within park boundaries and completing parks will actually make their administration and resource management more efficient and cost effective, thereby freeing up money for other needs.  Removing inholdings often improves things like invasive species control and water quality, reduces wildfire risks, removes obstacles to recreation and to wildlife management, and facilitates conservation of historical resources. In most instances, completion of specific parks by purchasing certain inholdings has been directed by Congress.  Right now, there are many willing sellers and with real estate prices at rock bottom, this is an ideal time for the Park Service to acquire critical inholdings before they are lost forever to incompatible development. The longer we wait and the more pressure for incompatible development, the more expensive the land becomes. It is a far more complicated proposition than simply opposing or supporting the expansion of federal holdings or the size of the federal government; LWCF is part of successful management of our national parks.

The deferred maintenance backlog: The backlog is attributable to chronic funding deficiencies in several categories, including operations, construction and transportation. These deficiencies have forced park managers to make unfortunate choices between what needs to be done and what absolutely must be done immediately to keep the parks up and running and visitors satisfied and safe. It would be one thing if Congress specifically required revenue that would otherwise legally be directed to the LWCF to be used for a period of time to eliminate the maintenance backlog, but that is not the tradeoff that is offered. Unfortunately, new funding reductions and prudent management decisions necessitated by budget uncertainty over the recent past have resulted in an increase in the maintenance backlog from roughly $9 billion last year to nearly $11 billion today. Clearly that is a move in the wrong direction, and at current levels of investment, the backlog will continue to increase in perpetuity. The longer needed repairs and maintenance to facilities is put off, the more expensive and difficult they become.
With our nation facing deficits, identifying savings is an important priority, but is not the only priority. Even if Congress were to eliminate every dollar of discretionary spending tomorrow, the deficit would continue to grow. The National Park System is about more than America’s past; it’s about our future, as the story of this great nation and our experiment in democracy continues to unfold.

One- thirteenth of one per cent! If even this fundamental federal responsibility cannot be met, it may mean nothing less than losing some of these national resources – resources important to understanding where we came from, how we got here and where we are going - forever. The future of our way of life and the shared values that define it will be diminished.

Is it important for the next generation of Americans to know what happened at Gettysburg? Should they understand the hardships faced at Valley Forge by the volunteer militia fighting to give birth to a new nation? Should they have a chance to see - really see, not just in cyberspace - what a buffalo looks like in the wild, or know the wonder of Old Faithful erupting, or learn to catch a fish? Should they still remember those who bravely died at Pearl Harbor or on Flight 93? Is it important that the lofty Lamp of Liberty shines on in New York Harbor, a beacon of freedom and opportunity, reminding of our values, for generations to come? The responsibility for that future lies with this subcommittee, and future generations are depending on you and your colleagues to leave them a future enriched by these American treasures.


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