Policy Update May 26, 2017

Testimony: Public Witness Day for FY18 Appropriations

Written testimony by John Garder, NPCA Director of Budget and Appropriations, for the House Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.

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) FY18 budget.

National parks protect America’s heritage and deliver robust economic returns of $10 in economic benefits nationally for every dollar invested in the NPS. The economic value of parks has grown along with visitation so that last year, national parks supported nearly $35 billion in economic activity and 318,000 jobs. NPCA and other polling indicates the vast popularity of national parks and strong bipartisan support for adequately funding them. And of course they are deeply loved by the American people in part because they protect our cultural and natural heritage.

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 providing needed increases for the National Park Service the last four fiscal year, with a particularly noteworthy increase in FY16. This will be helpful for parks to try to keep up with their funding challenges. As they are still behind where they need to be to meet their mission, 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.

Top three FY18 Priorities: NPCA requests appropriated funding for NPS with a focus on these accounts:

  1. $2,535,436,369 for ‘Operation of the National Park System’
  2. $303,089,287 for ‘National Parks Construction’
  3. $30,000,000 for ‘National Park Partnerships’/Centennial Challenge

These amounts represent a similar increase as that enacted for the system’s centennial year.

However, we must note there are other programs critical to NPCA. My testimony outlines these and several other issues:

  • The Budget Control Act and need for another budget deal;
  • 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;
  • And the administration’s workforce reduction effort.

Budget Control Act (BCA) and budget process: 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 with the two-year budget deals that have provided needed relief from that indiscriminate and damaging instrument with spending levels that are already austere absent the sequester.

One of our largest concerns now is the need for another budget deal to prevent the sequester, and we urge the committee to work with your colleagues to ensure a deal. We are urging Congress to reach such a deal as a central component of our FY18 advocacy.

The President’s FY18 budget: Not helpful to FY18 is the extraordinarily damaging president’s budget, which if enacted would be the largest cut to the park service since WWII. It seeks to cut more than 1,200 staff (FTEs), cut park operations by 8%, reduce deferred maintenance funding despite claims to the contrary, and much more. The deep cut to EPA threatens the health of park air and waters. We urge the subcommittee to wholeheartedly reject that deeply flawed proposal.

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 recent increases for maintenance accounts will be very helpful for national parks—but we regret to acknowledge that more is needed. After adjusting for inflation, FY17 levels for park operations is still $96 million, or 4% 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 FY16, FTEs for the park service were reduced by 2,515 FTEs—an 11.3% reduction in staff (from FY18 NPS budget justifications). 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 challenge is compounded by a 13% increase in visitation over the last two years, with some parks struggling with much more than that average.

Support for our request would help address the $11.3 billion deferred maintenance backlog. The backlog continues to threaten the protection of nationally significant resources and, eventually the experience of visitors. Recent increases have been helpful but are still insufficient to meet the need. While the backlog is one of our highest funding priorities, we do not want a focus on the backlog to cause other needed work to fall further behind; therefore, we respectfully request broad investments in park operations to address cyclic maintenance and repair and rehabilitation, but also, importantly, the many operating needs beyond maintenance.

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 $286 million, or 58% below levels of fifteen years 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.

Dedicated 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 be able to address even the highest priority non-transportation facilities’ needs. We were grateful for the recent opportunity to testify to the House Natural Resources Committee on this issue on March 16th, 2017 and recommend review of NPCA’s testimony submitted for that hearing.

We are heartened at the bipartisan introduction of the National Park Service Legacy Act, S. 751 and H.R. 2584. We’re grateful of the support of several Interior appropriators for those bills, including a lead on the House bill, Rep. Kilmer of this subcommittee. We urge the members of the committee to cosponsor the bill and work with other members of Congress and the administration to ensure its passage as a standalone bill or as a component of a larger infrastructure or other appropriate bill.

Centennial Challenge: We commend this subcommittee for restoring the Centennial Challenge program in FY15, and for the increases for the program in FY16 and 17. 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. We commend Congress for passage of the Centennial Act in the last Congress to dedicate funding to that program and to a newly established endowment. Given the extraordinary philanthropic interest in the program, sustained or increased appropriations would help leverage additional philanthropic dollars—a wise investment. We understand the intent of the committee in the FY18 omnibus report in directing Centennial Challenge dollars to focus on deferred maintenance. While we commend you on the increase and concur that maintenance is a pressing need as outlined above, this could have the effect of preventing matching dollars for the many philanthropic-driven projects that improve the visiting experience in other ways beyond maintenance.

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 urge support for the NPS federal land acquisition and management portion of LWCF, a critical tool for protecting our national parks. We were pleased the FY16 omnibus included better funding for the LWCF program and a three-year reauthorization. However, we were also disappointed to see a cut to LWCF in FY17, leaving insufficient funds for several proposed projects. We urge the subcommittee to reject the president’s draconian request for this account and restore appropriated funding. Additionally, we request support for permanent reauthorization of the program through support for H.R. 502, which now has more than 160 bipartisan cosponsors.

Historic Preservation Fund (HPF): When Congress established the Historic Preservation Act in 1966 it also created the Historic Preservation Fund to “carry out the provisions…” of the act. The HPF accomplishes that mission by, in part, serving as 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. The HPF remains an integral part of our national preservation framework and we commend the committee on the increase for the fund in FY17 to $81 million and request continued support for the program at that level.

National Heritage Areas (NHAs): NPCA is a strong supporter of the National Heritage Area program. In 2012, and with a modest federal investment of $18 million, the 49 existing NHAs generated $12 billion in economic activity, $1.2 billion in tax revenues, and supported 148,000 jobs. In 2015, a series of congressionally mandated assessments of nine NHAs determined that they were meeting their congressionally mandated benchmarks and deserved continued federal support. This mighty program with a modest budget ($19.8 million in FY17) empowers communities all across the United States to more capably protect and preserve local resources that are also nationally significant, and to do so without adding a single additional acre to the federal rolls. NPCA requests that funding for the National Heritage Area program remain at the current FY2017 level of $19.8 million.

Historic Preservation Fund (HPF): When Congress established the Historic Preservation Act in 1966 it also created the Historic Preservation Fund to “carry out the provisions…” of the act. The HPF accomplishes that mission by, in part, serving as 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. The HPF remains an integral part of our national preservation framework and we commend the committee on the increase for the fund in FY17 to $81 million and request continued support for the program at that level.

Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA): We appreciate this subcommittee has supported short-term extensions of FLREA. Reauthorization is critical for NPS to retain needed fee revenue. As NPCA continues to support a long-term reauthorization of FLREA with the respective authorizing committees, we ask the subcommittee to continue support for annual extensions.

Policy Riders: Efforts to attach environmentally damaging policy riders only further threatens the appropriations process, so we were grateful that the final FY17 bill was largely free of the many proposed riders that would have threatened parks, their ecosystems, and the health of visitors and wildlife within them. We urge continued rejection of efforts to attach damaging riders.

The Administration’s Workforce Reduction Effort: We are deeply concerned about the administration’s effort to reduce the size of the federal workforce as it relates to the park service and the agencies that support it, particularly EPA, which ensures the health of park water and air. As noted earlier, parks are already understaffed. We are concerned not only about the potential for this process to further reduce park service staff but also eliminate or merge important programs and offices. We ask the committee to monitor this exercise and remind the administration that these actions are within your jurisdiction. One option for such a statement would be through report language similar to that provided in the Agriculture section of the FY17 omnibus report.

In conclusion: NPCA has emphasized to this subcommittee 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. 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 concepts to supplement but do not supplant the federal responsibility to appropriate funding for our nation’s parks. In this spirit, we again urge cosponsorship of the maintenance backlog legislation, H.R. 2584.

Again, respectfully recognizing what we expect will be another constrained allocation, we urge you to provide the best funding level possible for NPS to help the agency recover from underfunding.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify.