Statement of Thomas C. Kiernan, President
National Parks Conservation Association
Re: Public Witnesses Hearing
Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies
Committee on Appropriations
U. S. House of Representatives
April 23, 2009
Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Simpson, and members of the Subcommittee, for the record I am Tom Kiernan, President of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). I am pleased to have the opportunity to appear before you today on behalf of NPCA’s 325,000 members nationwide to discuss the budget needs for the National Park Service for the 2010 fiscal year and our thoughts on the Administration’s initial budget sketch. Since 1919, NPCA has been the leading independent voice in support of protecting and enhancing the National Park System for generations of Americans, past, present and future.
As I have mentioned in past years, on a personal level, we appreciate the leadership that you, Mr. Chairman, together with this entire committee have shown as related to the imperative that we improve the funding position of the national parks. I also want to say how much we look forward to working with Mr. Simpson as the subcommittee’s new ranking member. With 275 million people visiting the parks from every walk of life and dozens of nations, the national parks offer us a place for quiet reflection, learning, inspiration and, yes, a good dose of fun. On a business level, they are the “little engines that could” supporting communities across the nation. We thank you for your commitment to this goal and for your long-standing support.
I am well aware that this is likely to be a time of tough fiscal choices. Consequently, we have invested considerable time and resources to identify supplemental, creative financial mechanisms to help support on-going park needs and compliment this committee’s efforts. The Committee began this process by funding the first installment of the Centennial Challenge, a potentially transformative effort to leverage additional non-federal resources. We need your continued support to push this program forward.
As you work through the opportunities and trade-offs presented with this year’s budget, it bears reminding why the national parks are an excellent investment of federal funds and what benefits spin off from a strong level of support.
- With 391 units in 49 states and 4 territories, national parks provide economic stability in some of the most remote and hard-hit areas of the nation.
- With 275 million visitors in 2008, local economies benefited from nearly $12 billion in visitor spending for lodging, food and recreation.
- A recent economic study commissioned by the National Parks Conservation Association found that every federal dollar invested in national parks generates at least four dollars economic value to the public.
- Few other areas of the American economy that reach as far and generate benefits as deeply into communities in jobs and revenue as the national parks.
But economic statistics do not speak to the cultural impact that national parks carry on our lives. These places were established as parks because they have deep meaning to the nation and to the world. The Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, the Gateway Arch – they need no explaining. Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rainier, the Grand Canyon – these are the places both inspire and motivate us to travel and recreate. And in our own back yards, the urban units of the National Park System from Gateway to Golden Gate provide a window to the natural and cultural wonders and the lessons of history that are our heritage.
In fact, the FY10 bill will provide funding for the time period immediately following the national airing on PBS of Ken Burns new documentary on the national parks. The Burns film will focus greater attention toward the parks and as a result may significantly boost visitation and demand for park services in the summer of 2010.
To provide for the educational experience, maintain the physical structures, the roads, trails, interpretive signs and exhibits, and provide simple access to visitors every year requires consistent financial support at a high level. This committee has been wonderful in recognizing this challenge, and answering it. And as a result of this committee’s efforts – especially over the last three years – rangers and interpreters are numerous enough for more visitors to see and experience, and the maintenance needs of the national parks are receiving some needed attention. Yet, the fiscal hole for the parks remains daunting, with significant resources still needed to address the operations shortfall and the maintenance and land acquisition backlog. It is critical that we maintain the momentum towards recovery for the parks that this committee has begun, as we look toward a fully functioning National Park System for its centennial year, in 2016.
Park Service Operations
Park Operations remain a top priority for NPCA. We strongly endorse the direction that the Obama Administration has taken in its initial budget sketch of $100 million above fixed cost increases. If prior years are a guide, that would suggest an increase of approximately $145 or $150 million over FY2009 levels – clearly continuing the trend toward reducing the operations shortfall that just a few years ago stood at $800 million and is the root cause of so many of the problems the parks face. This is an area that was not addressed by Congress and the White House in constructing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but is key to the recovery of the parks from every perspective – from the provision of highly valued visitor services to the provision of visitor and worker safety to addressing routine maintenance needs that, if ignored, add to the maintenance and construction backlog.
We are all aware of the long litany of problems and deficiencies confronting the park system that are the result of decades of under funding for park operations – from missing rangers, shuttered visitor centers, dirty bathrooms, reduced interpretive programs and deteriorating artifacts to inadequate or spotty personnel training. The tide is clearly turning, and with this commitment from the Obama Administration we will see the fourth year of serious progress toward addressing a problem that is decades old, and a fourth year of operating increases of $100 million above fixed costs. If this commitment can be maintained in future years, we will clearly meet the goal of returning the parks to a position of financial health by the Centennial year.
The Obama Administration has provided an important first signal of its commitment to return the Land and Water Conservation Fund to its original purpose of collecting and funneling monies from off-shore oil and gas revenues to important state and federal conservation projects – most especially land acquisition. At this time it is unclear how much of the Administration’s commitment of $420 million for land acquisition will be designated for national park lands. The need however is clear enough. A study of land acquisition needs commissioned by NPCA last year revealed that privately-held lands within existing national park boundaries – the highest priority of lands for the agency – are valued at nearly $2 billion by NPS. It will take years to address and correct this, as it has with park operations. But the result will be streamlined operations at many parks, and increased capacity to preserve these lands. It is our fervent hope that you will provide at least $125 million for park land acquisition in this year’s budget.
In most instances, completion of these parks by purchasing in-holdings from willing sellers has been directed by Congress. Right now, there are many willing sellers and many bargains to be had. The longer we wait and the more the pressure for incompatible development on this attractive land increases, the more expensive the land becomes. We often hear the argument that it is inconsistent for us to advocate for money to acquire more park land when we are also arguing, in effect, that the Park Service lacks the resources to manage, protect and operate what they already have. I understand the argument. While it makes a nice point in debate, the reality is that removing in-holdings and completing parks will actually make their administration more efficient and cost effective, and will help prevent conflicts like the one that now threatens Valley Forge.
Given the contribution made toward addressing construction and maintenance needs for the parks through the Economic Stimulus, it is unclear to us how the Administration will line out this section of the budget. It’s important to note, however, that with a backlog if infrastructure construction and maintenance needs that tops $9 billion, the $589 million provided the parks for construction was a but a down-payment toward addressing this mammoth problem. We do not at this time have a figure for construction and maintenance to propose. We are very mindful, however, that the pace of deterioration of these park assets has been increasing and without a strong plan and the funds to deliver on that plan, more and more effort will be required on the part of park managers to plug thousands and thousands of proverbial leaky dykes. We urge this committee to do all that you can here. The payoff in economic gain for local communities and pride in our American icons is very, very great.
Mr. Chairman, I would indeed be remiss if I did not mention the National Park Centennial Challenge, and thank you for your support and bold action to jumpstart this unprecedented opportunity and to keep this program alive. As I mentioned before, this is a potentially transformative program for the parks, allowing the agency to carry out significant, creative projects and programs to enhance and revitalize the national parks beyond what would ordinarily be possible with regularly appropriated dollars. Putting the ingenuity and generosity of the American people in league with their government to reach a lofty goal is as American as the national parks themselves.
We remain committed to enacting legislation to authorize the full, 10-year Centennial Challenge program. We need your continued help in that regard as well, and we are pleased that the Administration has proposed $25 million for Challenge projects in FY2010. As you know, that amount is not sufficient to meet the goals of the program, and we hope to work with you to find additional resources for it.
Mr. Chairman, we realize you face many difficult choices. We are profoundly grateful for your steady and consistent efforts to invest in addressing the needs of the parks every year. You have helped the Park Service put rangers back on the ground and enabled the Park Service to better accomplish their job of caring for these natural and cultural treasures so they can continue to inspire and educate millions of visitors each year.
The national parks are not just about America’s past; they are about our future. After years of waiting, the bar has been re-set. All eyes will be on the parks this fall with the premier of the Ken Burns documentary series on the national parks and the release of the report of the National Park Service 2nd Century Commission’s findings. History tells us that it is in economic times like this when our nation should redouble its commitment to the national parks. More than ever as their centennial approaches, the national parks should be a national priority.