Written statement of John Garder, NPCA Senior Director of Budget and Appropriations, for the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies.
Chairman McCollum, Ranking Member Joyce 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) FY20 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. In 2017, more than $18 billion in visitor spending 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 six fiscal years, with particularly commendable increases in FY16 and FY18. This will be helpful for parks to address their funding challenges. As they are still considerably behind where they need to be to meet their mission, we urge you to do your best to build on this support in F20.
Top three FY20 Priorities: NPCA requests appropriated funding for NPS with a focus on these accounts:
$2.606 billion for ‘Operation of the National Park System’
$508.6 million for ‘National Parks Construction’
$30 million for ‘National Park Partnerships’/Centennial Challenge
These requests are based upon the proportional increases in FY16, recognizing that Congress has met these goals before. There are numerous other NPS accounts and programs important to us, and we outline several of them later in this testimony.
The President’s FY20 budget: Not helpful to your work in FY20 is yet another draconian and unrealistic president’s budget. Cuts to park service staffing, repairs and other needs would set the park service back considerably. Proposed deep cuts to EPA and other agencies important to protecting parks’ environment are further damaging. We commend Congress for wholeheartedly rejecting these cuts last year and urge that you continue to support our parks.
The need for a funding deal and an improved 302(b) allocation for the Interior and Environment subcommittee: We respect that this past fiscal year was painful and hope that this year can be far more functional. We urge decision-makers and the president to work together to agree to a deal to lift the budget caps for the final two years of the Budget Control Act. To do otherwise would be vastly damaging to nondiscretionary needs including for our national parks. We urge an improved 302(b) allocation to meet needs at parks and for other agencies and programs.
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 the last several years have been very helpful for national parks. Unfortunately, the backlog grew by more than $300 million during FY17 and despite increases since then, we know that more is needed to build on that good work to chip away at the now $11.9 billion backlog.
Support for the aforementioned request would help address the 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 $25 million appropriated to this fund in FY19. We hope that subcommittee can meet the fully authorized amount this fiscal year, and even provide a full $175 million to catch up on the shortfall in this year’s appropriation.
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 increase funding 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 ways beyond maintenance.
Dedicated backlog funding: We continue to urge 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 large size of the backlog.
NPCA is a strong advocate for the Restore Our Parks/ Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act (S. 500/ H.R. 1225). We’re grateful to Rep. Kilmer on this subcommittee for co-leading the House version of the bill. 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.
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. Between 2011 and 2017, 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 applaud Congress for the recent permanent reauthorization of LWCF, which was an exciting show of support for this important program. We ask Congress to build on this support by providing more robust appropriations and dedicated funding at its fully authorized amount of $900 million annually.
We commend the recent congressional recognition for supporting both LWCF and deferred maintenance and urge Congress to support dedicated funding for both these important needs.
National Heritage Areas (NHAs): NPCA is a strong supporter of the National Heritage Area program. The more than fifty 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. We urge support for H.R.1049, the National Heritage Area Act of 2019, which 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, with gradual increases until it reaches its fully authorized amount of $150 million annually.
Policy Riders: Efforts to attach environmentally damaging policy riders only further threatens the appropriations process, so we were grateful that the final FY19 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 remain 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 and improved FY19 report language exercising oversight over this proposal and appreciate your continued oversight to ensure the integrity of NPS and the Department more broadly. This proposal threatens to undermine the authority of the National Park Service.
The recent government shutdown: The recent government shutdown was extraordinarily damaging to our national parks, their visitors, partner groups, park staff and businesses. It should never be repeated. This shutdown was made much worse not only by its extended duration—more than twice the length of the October 2013 shutdown—but by the administration’s damaging decisions to leave many parks partially open despite a lack of staff, and then to use fee dollars intended for other purposes to extend this damaging situation.
We contend the administration violated, at a minimum, the spirit of several laws but was also in clear violation of the Organic Act that established the park service by leaving parks open to harm and continuing the situation despite this clear harm. We commend Chairwoman McCollum for exercising oversight to hold the administration responsible for its decisions and urge you to continue this oversight. Among other fears we continue to have is that the Department of the Interior will seek to reprogram badly needed operating dollars for staffing at the border, as they did last year. The administration appears to be of the philosophy that parks can operate with insufficient staff and resources and that they can shift funds by going around appropriators, who hold the power of the purse as you know well. Furthermore, decisions such as these only contribute to the funding woes with which the park service already struggles.
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 a budget deal, an improved subcommittee allocation, and for you to provide the best funding level possible for NPS in FY20 to help the agency recover from underfunding. Further, we appreciate your oversight over the administration’s proposals regarding fees and reorganization, and the reprogramming of funds and other damaging decisions during the shutdown and beyond.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify.
For More Information
Senior Director of Budget & Appropriations, Government Affairs