Policy Update Feb 6, 2019

Testimony: Agency Spending Restrictions During a Shutdown

Written statement of John Garder, NPCA Senior Director of Budget & Appropriations, for the hearing "The Power of the Purse: A Review of Agency Spending Restrictions During a Shutdown" in the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies scheduled for February 6, 2019.

Chairwoman McCollum, Ranking Member Joyce, and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony for the record on behalf of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). Since 1919, NPCA been the leading voice of the American people in protecting and enhancing our National Park System. On behalf of our more than 1.3 million members and supporters nationwide, I write to express our deep concern with the recent partial government shutdown’s severe impacts on parks, their visitors and staff, businesses and nonprofit support groups. Particularly alarming is that the impact of this shutdown was made much worse not only by its extended duration—the longest in US history—but by the administration’s decisions to first leave many parks open to harm during the length of the shutdown, and then prolong the damaging impacts of this approach by using fee revenue to provide for some park operations.

Throughout the course of the shutdown, NPCA had reports coming in from media and other sources about threats to visitor and wildlife health and safety, and to parks’ natural and cultural resources. As was well-documented at Joshua Tree National Park, impacts to parks were not limited to sanitation issues relating to trash and human waste, which were concerns at numerous parks. Graffiti was found and off-road vehicle use destroyed sensitive desert soils and led to the death of at least one of the park’s signature Joshua Trees, which take hundreds of years to grow. Nearby Death Valley National Park faced many of these same impacts. Vandalism, looting, the habituation of wildlife to overflowing trash receptacles, and parking and camping in sensitive areas were serious concerns in a number of parks that were left partially open to park visitors without the requisite staff to ensure the protection of park resources and the health and safety of visitors.

The Department of the Interior’s (DOI) January 2018 guidance outlined that 21,383, or 87 percent of the National Park Service’s (NPS) 24,681 employees would be furloughed. Despite the inability to fully staff parks during a shutdown, the administration directed parks to remain partially open in a clear abdication of its obligation to protect park resources and visitors. During the shutdown, NPCA interviewed Karen McKinlay-Jones, who retired as the chief law enforcement ranger for Death Valley National Park 10 days into the shutdown. Ms. McKinlay-Jones outlined her conversation with her superiors and noted, “We argued and argued and said, you cannot keep a campground open and close the restrooms. You just can’t do it,” then after following the directive to leave the park open that “we started having damage and we started having human waste issues…everything that we told them would happen started happening.” Despite the predictable threats to park resources and clear damage to park resources, the administration continued to keep parks open to visitors.

The National Park Service Organic Act is clear in its mandate to protect park resources, stating that the NPS mission is “….to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The law is clear that there is a legal obligation to protect parks’ natural and cultural resources, and to provide for visitor enjoyment with the qualification that it occur in a manner that leaves parks unimpaired. The decision to continue to keep parks open despite clear threats and damage to resources was made worse with the directive to use fee dollars to prolong the situation.

These concerns led NPCA to submit with our partners at Democracy Forward a request to the DOI Office of Inspector General to investigate the administration’s approach to the shutdown. We ask that our letter be submitted for the congressional record. In that letter, we requested an investigation into violation of—among other laws—the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA), noting that the law “only permits the use of visitor fee funds for six enumerated purposes related to improving visitor experiences – not as a general purpose operating fund account. See id. § 6807(a)(3).”

On January 5, 2019, Acting DOI Secretary Bernhardt directed parks to reopen using fees collected under FLREA, in violation of the way in which fees have historically been intended and used. NPS Management Policy 8.2.6 states that fees “are not intended to offset the operational costs associated with a park,” yet that is what Mr. Bernhardt effectively was directing parks to do. NPS Director’s Order 22 also provides that fee revenue is intended to provide high quality enhancements directly impacting visitors, yet the use of these funds was for trash removal and other basic maintenance services that do not meet this intent.

The use of fee revenue undermined long-standing efforts to address NPS’ nearly $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog, as most fee dollars are directed towards projects to repair our parks. Many superintendents had intentions for these fee dollars, and the direction to use these valuable funds, to the point of even zeroing them out as the January 5 directive states, undermines years of planning to repair aging park infrastructure, ensure the integrity of park resources and provide for a quality visiting experience. Projects that NPS has intended for Fiscal Year 2019 include replacing Scotty’s Castle climate control system at Death Valley National Park, replacing the North Entrance Station at Yellowstone National Park, improvements to the Wawona Wastewater System at Yosemite National Park, and completing restoration and expanding accessibility at the Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site.

This shutdown was tremendously damaging to the morale and well-being of park service staff who care deeply about our national parks. Many park nonprofit partners and businesses also suffered. Park resources were both threatened and harmed and visitors’ health and safety were put needlessly at risk. The list of damage to our national parks and to peoples’ lives is a long one that should never be repeated.

NPCA urges decision-makers quickly come to a budget agreement so that all parks can be fully open and adequately staffed to keep visitors safe and irreplaceable resources protected. As the National Park Service continues to operate with insufficient funds to protect resources, repair infrastructure and accommodate growing numbers of visitors—a situation that will be considerably worsened by this crisis—we also urge members of this committee to work together to support gradual, needed funding increases in future appropriations bills. Finally, in the event of another preventable shutdown, we urge the administration not to repeat its damaging decisions to keep parks partially open—and thus open to damage while exposing visitors to harm—and to use fee revenue desperately needed for other purposes.