Written testimony by John Garder, NPCA Director of Budget and Appropriations, for the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.
Chairman Murkowski, Ranking Member Udall 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) FY19 budget and funding issues facing our national parks this year.
National parks protect America’s heritage and deliver robust economic returns of $10 in economic benefits nationally for every dollar invested in the NPS. Last year, national parks supported nearly $36 billion in economic activity and 306,000 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 the National Park Service. 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 five fiscal years, with particularly commendable increases in FY16 and in the recent FY18 omnibus appropriations bill. This will be helpful for parks to address 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 in FY19.
Top three FY19 Priorities: NPCA requests appropriated funding for NPS with a focus on these accounts:
- $2.629 billion for ‘Operation of the National Park System’
- $407 million for 'National Parks Construction’
- $23 million for 'National Park Partnerships’/Centennial Challenge
The Centennial Challenge request is for flat funding, and the operations and construction requests are based upon the proportional increases in FY16 and FY18.
There are numerous other NPS accounts and programs important to us, and we outline several of them later in this testimony.
The President’s FY19 budget: Not helpful to your work in FY19 is the extraordinarily damaging president’s budget, which is comparable in its draconian nature to the administration’s FY18 request. The initial request sought to cut 1,835 NPS staff in FTEs, an astonishing number that is a nearly 50% increase over an already damaging FY18 request for staff cuts. Proposed cuts to EPA and other agencies important to protecting parks’ environments are further damaging. That the administration’s addendum second-guessed the deep cut to park operations was of little consolation. We commend the appropriations committees for wholeheartedly rejecting the administration’s proposed cuts in FY18 and urge that you continue to support our parks despite this damaging vision for their future.
The Interior allocation and wildfire funding relief: NPCA recognizes the allocation provided to the subcommittee in recent years has been insufficient and emblematic of the austere constraints on domestic discretionary investments. Therefore, we were relieved that compromise was reached on a budget deal that will extend to FY19, and urge Congress to find future sequester relief through the expiration of the Budget Control Act after FY21. We applaud the work of Chairman Mike Simpson and other members of Congress who fought so hard for a wildfire funding fix, which we hope will both make the subcommittee’s work easier and ensure a far more functional system for funding catastrophic wildfires. We expect this will be helpful to our national parks and other public lands.
Appropriated funding for the deferred maintenance backlog: The backlog continues to threaten the protection of nationally significant resources and, eventually the experience of visitors. Investments are needed for visitor centers, trails, water systems, and more. The subcommittee’s recent increases for maintenance accounts will be very helpful for national parks. The $160 million in added maintenance funding in FY18 will be particularly helpful in addressing parks’ many repair needs, and commend that our national parks were beneficiaries of Congress’ maintenance investments. Unfortunately, more is needed to build on that good work.
Support for the aforementioned request would help address the $11.6 billion deferred maintenance backlog with investments in the repair/rehab and cyclic maintenance Operations subaccounts, and line-item construction subaccount. For your information, we are also urging the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development subcommittee to fund at the fully authorized $100 million annually the Nationally Significant Federal Lands and Tribal Projects Program, which funds transportation infrastructure for parks and other federal lands, and tribal lands. We were grateful for the $300 million appropriated to this fund in FY18.
Centennial Challenge: This program provides federal funds to match private funds for projects throughout the park system that improve the visitor experience, including but not limited to deferred maintenance projects. We commend this subcommittee for the increases for the program the last three fiscal years. 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 flat funding from FY18 for this successful program that enjoys strong bipartisan support.
We commend Congress for passage of the Centennial Act in 2016 to dedicate funding to that program and to a newly established endowment. Given the extraordinary philanthropic interest in the program, sustained or increased appropriations in addition to those funds would help leverage additional philanthropic dollars—a wise investment. We understand the intent of the committee in directing Centennial Challenge dollars to focus on deferred maintenance. While deferred maintenance projects funded by this program are critical, NPCA respectfully reminds the committee of the importance of other philanthropically-driven projects that improve the visiting experience in other ways beyond maintenance.
Dedicated backlog funding: We respect that it can be very difficult to identify budgetary offsets for mandatory programs, yet have been urging Congress to recognize that a more realistic long-term solution is needed to address the maintenance backlog. Under current allocations established by the Budget Control Act, and even beyond given the constraints of the appropriations process, it is difficult to see how this subcommittee will be able to address even the highest priority non-transportation facilities’ needs. We also recognize the constraints of the Highway Trust Fund in meeting the bulk of park transportation infrastructure needs. These funding sources are simply limited in their ability to address the scope of the large backlog.
NPCA is a strong advocate for 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. We urge the members of the committee to cosponsor the bill and work with other members of Congress and the administration to ensure passage of a bill that dedicates robust and dependable funding to the maintenance challenge.
While we commend Senator Alexander and others for their support for dedicated funding through introduction of the Restoration Act, we urge improvement of that funding source through working with the Legacy Act cosponsors and the administration to arrive at a final solution that can realistically address the problem. We fear the Restoration Act revenue source does not guarantee the robust funding that is needed, and that the park service under that revenue stream would not be able to plan for multi-year projects without a sufficient and known amount to plan for these projects. We urge Congress to pass a bill that provides robust, dedicated, dependable and dedicated funding to this problem.
We respectfully request Operations investments for non-maintenance needs:
While the maintenance 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 the many operating needs beyond maintenance.
In recent years, NPS has experienced a gradual erosion of staff in most years. 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 significant increases in visitation that require staff time. Since 2011, NPS has experienced an 11% reduction in staff while at the same time the National Park System experienced a 19% increase in visitation. We appreciate the committee’s attention to these ongoing needs, and that while the maintenance backlog is a profound problem that NPCA and others are prioritizing, these other needs must be addressed.
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 a three-year reauthorization of the program, but are concerned this authorization will run out at the end of this fiscal year. We are urging Congress to reauthorize this program and request consideration of appropriations bill language to provide temporary reauthorization in an FY19 funding vehicle. To address LWCF’s needs in the long-term, we urge support for legislation to permanently reauthorize the program, S. 896 and H.R. 502, and to provide both permanent reauthorization and dedicated funding, S. 596.
We commend the approach of the LAND Act and the Senate energy bill in seeking to address both deferred maintenance and LWCF. NPCA urges Congress to support both these important needs.
National Heritage Areas (NHAs): NPCA is a strong supporter of the National Heritage Area program. The 49 existing NHAs have generated $12 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 deserves support from both Congress and the president. Furthermore, support for H.R. 1002 would establish a program structure and provide uniform standards for designating, funding and assessing all NHAs.
Historic Preservation Fund (HPF): 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. We request continued support for this important program.
Policy Riders: Efforts to attach environmentally damaging policy riders only further threatens the appropriations process, so we were grateful that the final FY18 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.
National Park Fees: NPCA recognizes that fees play an important role in supplementing federal funds, but they can never realistically be a major funding source for parks. We forcefully opposed the administration’s excessive effort to increase fees at 17 parks during peak season and commend their withdrawing that effort. While the new fees will be more modest, on top of recent fee increases, we fear the higher amounts could price Americans out of the parks they own. We are urging the administration to research the price point at which fees do not discourage visitation, particularly for lower income families. We ask Congress to consider setting those fee levels to be adjusted every two or three years by inflation automatically, thus reducing the complications that arise with fee decisions and keeping fees at a fair and even rate in constant dollars.
We urge the committee in general to continue exercising oversight of fees to keep parks affordable.
The Administration’s Department of the Interior Reorganization Effort: We are deeply concerned about the administration’s proposal to reorganize the Department. Our chief concerns are: a lack of transparency and public involvement; a lack of clarity on the problems to be solved, the purposes and goals of the proposal and its components, and the suggested timeline for implementation; the potential for the proposal to erode the unique NPS mission; shifting the number and role of regional offices and staff; the potential for the effort to reduce the capacity, presence or coordinating capacity of the Washington Support Office (WASO), Denver Service Center and regional support offices; the potential cost of the proposal to an under-resourced park service; and the potential this proposal could be connected with a workforce reduction effort.
We commend the committee’s extensive FY18 report language exercising oversight over this proposal and appreciate your continued oversight to ensure the integrity of NPS and the Department more broadly.
In conclusion: We recognize the subcommittee’s constrained allocation, and thus commend the recent funding increases to NPS and commitment to our parks well-being. We urge you to provide the best funding level possible for NPS in FY19 to help the agency recover from underfunding. Further, we appreciate your oversight over the administration’s proposals regarding fees and reorganization.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify.