Policy Update Mar 23, 2016

Testimony: Fiscal Year 2017 Interior Appropriations

Written statement submitted by John Garder to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies on March 23, 2016.

Chairman Calvert, Ranking Member McCollum, and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony on behalf of National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). Founded in 1919, NPCA is the leading national, independent voice for protecting and enhancing America’s National Park System for present and future generations. I appreciate the opportunity to provide our views regarding the National Park Service (NPS) FY17 budget.

National parks protect America’s heritage and deliver robust economic returns of $10 in economic benefits nationally for every dollar invested in NPS. NPCA polling indicates the vast popularity of national parks and strong bipartisan support for adequately funding them.

We acknowledge the tremendous challenge the subcommittee faces in setting thoughtful spending priorities, so we are grateful for your consistent support for national parks. NPCA and our partners in the National Parks Second Century Action Coalition commend your subcommittee for supporting a needed increase for the National Park Service in FY16, the Service’s Centennial year. This level will make an important difference in recovering from years of cuts and inadequate funding. As there are still many needs, we urge you to do your best to build on this support as the System enters its next century of service to the American people.

Priorities: For FY17, NPCA requests appropriated funding for NPS of $3,111,829,000, which is equal to the president’s appropriated request, but rejecting his proposal to reduce Heritage Partnership Programs funding. This level includes—but is not limited to—NPCA’s priorities of meeting the president’s request for:

  • $2,524,362,000 for park operations;
  • $252,038,000 for construction; and
  • $35,000,000 in appropriated funds for the Centennial Challenge.

My testimony outlines these and several other issues:

  • The Budget Control Act, overarching budget concerns and the subcommittee’s allocation;
  • Park operations and construction funding and their connection to the maintenance backlog;
  • The Centennial Challenge program;
  • The Land and Water Conservation Fund and Historic Preservation Fund;
  • National Heritage Areas;
  • The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act;
  • Policy riders

Budget Control Act (BCA) and House budget: We’ve been dismayed to see the many challenges to the budget and appropriations process in recent years, and the threat and harm they have brought to national parks. We were deeply dismayed in FY13 when the BCA, due to the failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to identify offsets, mandated sequester cuts that were so damaging to national park operations that they resulted in shuttered facilities and thousands of ranger positions going unfilled. We were consequently pleased that the Bipartisan Budget Acts of 2013 and 2015 provided needed relief from that indiscriminate and damaging instrument with spending levels that are already austere absent the sequester.

We were alarmed to see the out-year cuts proposed in the recent House budget. While it honors the terms of the Bipartisan Budget Act for FY17, the proposal makes deep cuts to discretionary investments beginning in FY18. According to a coalition of which we are an enthusiastic member, NDD United, these proposed cuts include almost $900 billion in vital nondefense discretionary (NDD) programs – programs that include America’s National Park System. These discretionary programs would see a reported 8.5 percent cut in FY18, and by FY26, NDD spending would drop nearly 25 percent. With these levels, appropriators would have little to no ability to adequately invest in our nation’s parks. We continue to urge Congress to avoid these damaging proposals and instead support sequester relief and an orderly budget process.

The Interior allocation: NPCA believes the allocation provided to the subcommittee in recent years has been insufficient and emblematic of the austere constraints on domestic discretionary investments. In part to address this concern, we continue to urge legislation to address the dysfunctional system of catastrophic wildfire funding that burdens the Interior allocation. We support a clean fire funding fix, a bipartisan solution that would 1) access disaster funding, 2) minimize transfers, and 3) address the continued erosion of agency budgets over time, with the goal of reinvesting in key programs that would restore forests to healthier conditions.

Further, we feel that the Interior subcommittee allocation is unlikely to ever be sufficient to meet the full needs of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), the National Park System backlog, or the Payments In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) and Secure Rural Schools (SRS) programs, all of which should receive mandatory funding support outside of the Interior bill.

Park operations and the maintenance backlog: The subcommittee’s FY16 investment will be very helpful for national parks—but we regret to acknowledge that more is needed. The FY16 increase in park operations, after adjusting for inflation, still leaves a level $90 million—or 3.6 percent—below levels in FY10, when NPCA analysis indicated an annual operations shortfall of approximately a half billion dollars. Many parks remain understaffed: between FY10 and FY15, discretionary FTEs for the park service were reduced by 2,006 FTEs—an 11.2% reduction in staff. As you know, these losses can be damaging, with impacts such as less day-to-day maintenance, less scientific inventory and monitoring, reduced hours or even closed public facilities, fewer visitor programs, and other challenges to parks fulfilling their mission.

The operations request would support $96 million in cyclic maintenance and repair needs. Support for this request would help address the $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog. The backlog continues to threaten the protection of nationally significant resources and, eventually the experience of visitors. In February 2015, NPS estimated that it needed $820 million annually just to keep up with the backlog, but only received $473 million, or less than sixty cents for every dollar needed. While this number also included park transportation infrastructure that is not within the jurisdiction of this subcommittee, funding to deal with the non-roads backlog remains vastly insufficient, and both short- and long-term solutions are needed.

Construction and the backlog: The NPS construction account is a principal mechanism for addressing major repair needs, yet even after the FY16 increase in that account, it remains 48% below levels of a decade ago after adjusting for inflation. This is why the requested increase for this account is so important to address needed projects throughout the park system.

Mandatory backlog funding: We respect that it can be very difficult to identify budgetary offsets for mandatory programs, yet urge Congress to recognize that a more realistic long-term solution is needed to address the maintenance backlog. Under current allocations established by the BCA, it is difficult to see how this subcommittee will ever be able to address even the $2.4 billion highest priority non-transportation facilities’ needs. NPCA supports enacting legislation to begin reducing the backlog through a mandatory account and encourages Congress to pursue this approach to paying down the backlog’s most critical projects over the initial years of the system’s new century of service.

Centennial Challenge: We commend this subcommittee for restoring the Centennial Challenge program in FY15, and for the increase for the program in FY16. This support has leveraged more than two dollars for every dollar invested for signature projects across the National Park System that enhance the visiting experience. Many more philanthropic opportunities await, so we hope the subcommittee can support the request for an increase in this exciting program that enjoys strong bipartisan support. Further, we look forward to movement of a centennial bill that includes more robust funding for this important program, and urge members of this subcommittee to support such a bill that we hope will enjoy the bipartisan backing it deserves. That legislation would also include an endowment, another idea helpful in fostering a sustainable long-term funding model for NPS that supplements—but does not supplant—important appropriated dollars.

Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF): The acquisition of inholdings is directly related to better managing the places in which our nation already has made a significant investment. Thus we support the administration’s appropriated request of $68.2 million for the NPS federal land acquisition and management portion of LWCF, a critical tool for protecting our national parks. This appropriated request would help prevent incompatible development in ten NPS units, including Grand Teton National Park. We were pleased the FY16 omnibus included better funding for the LWCF program and a three-year reauthorization. We urge support for the administration’s proposal to partially fund LWCF with mandatory funds in FY17 and then phase in full and mandatory funding for the program, to provide this successful program with the dependability it deserves.

Historic Preservation Fund (HPF): The funding authorization for HPF was allowed to expire on October 1, 2015; we were disappointed the authorization was not extended in the omnibus as it was with LWCF. The HPF provides the primary source of funding for State Historic and Tribal Historic Preservation Offices in all 50 states. The HPF also supports the Historic Tax Credit program, responsible for the rehabilitation of over 40,000 buildings, the creation of 2.5 million jobs and the leveraging of $117 billion in private investments in historic preservation projects. H.R. 2817, the bipartisan National Historic Preservation Amendments Act, would both restore the funding authorization for the HPF and extend it through FY 2028. NPCA urges passage of this bill to support continued preservation and rehabilitation of historic sites and structures.

National Heritage Areas (NHAs): The president’s proposed fifty percent cut to the National Heritage Area program is an unwarranted attack on a program with a successful track record. In 2013, the 49 existing NHAs generated $13 billion in economic activity and $1.2 billion in tax revenues, and generated over 900,000 volunteer service hours. This mighty program with a modest budget ($19.8 million in FY16) deserves support from both Congress and the president. Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA): We are grateful that this subcommittee has supported multiple short-term extensions of FLREA, now extended through FY17. Reauthorization is critical for NPS to retain needed funds of nearly $200 million annually. As NPCA continues to support a long-term reauthorization of FLREA with the respective authorizing committees, we hope this subcommittee will continue to support annual extensions.

Policy Riders: Efforts to attach environmentally damaging policy riders only further threatens the appropriations process, so we were grateful that the final FY16 bill was free of riders that threaten parks, their ecosystems, and the health of visitors and wildlife within them. We urge that FY17 and future appropriations bills also be free of these damaging and controversial riders.

In conclusion: NPCA has emphasized to this subcommittee and its Senate counterpart over the years the importance of providing more adequate funding for America’s treasures. As the subcommittee has acknowledged, the National Park Service and System are deeply popular with the American public and are important for local economies. As we emphasize the importance of providing staff to serve record numbers of visitors, and staff and resources to address the repairs backlog, we should not forget the profound importance of park sites in preserving and interpreting our natural and cultural heritage—a heritage that defines America’s very identity. Outstanding wildlife habitat, geysers, cliffs, Civil War sites that commemorate our fallen ancestors, the places we celebrate—and where we have suffered: this is America’s extraordinary National Park System. This subcommittee has recognized these places as priorities; we again commend you for supporting their needs and urge your continuing support.

This subcommittee and its Senate counterpart have also emphasized the importance of a sustainable funding model for NPS. As you know, NPCA has long explored ideas to support such a model and advocate for mechanisms that, very importantly, do not supplant the federal responsibility to appropriate funding for our nation’s parks, but supplement these needed funds.

Again, we urge you to provide the best appropriated level possible for NPS to help the agency recover from years of underfunding. We ask you to support a centennial bill that provides an endowment and more robust support for the Centennial Challenge program. We will seek to leverage new fee opportunities, historic leasing, and other innovative approaches. But we also urge this Congress to identify mandatory support and/or other robust mechanisms to address the deferred maintenance backlog, as well as the backlog of land acquisition needs. As the National Park Service prepares to celebrate its Centennial and to embark on its next century of service to the American people who collectively own these national treasures, we stand to work with you to provide needed support to recover, restore and bolster America’s treasures.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify.