Interior chief directs staff to use all funds collected from visitor fees amid shutdown
New acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is directing the National Park Service (NPS) to drain their funds collected from entrance fees “until they’ve reached a zero balance,” in order to keep parks open, according to an internal memo obtained by The Hill.
The secretarial memo sent from Bernhardt to NPS Deputy Director Dan Smith on Saturday directed the agency to “immediately utilize” the money they’d collected through fees to address “restrooms and sanitation, trash collection, road maintenance, campground operations, law enforcement and emergency operations, and staffing entrance gates.”
“These operations shall be maintained until such funds have reached a zero balance,” the memo read.
Bernhardt in the memo said the government shutdown “highlighted some significant challenges” the agency faces as it sought to both save park resources and provide public enjoyment.
“We must provide opportunities for people to access and enjoy our wonderful parks, and we must do so in a way that ensures the same opportunity for future generations to enjoy,” he wrote.
“The extended lapse in appropriations has highlighted some significant challenges the service faces as it strived to appropriately balance this dual mission.”
Since the government shutdown began on Dec. 22, national parks have remained open to visitors despite the furloughing of park rangers and suspension of amenities such as trash collection and road clearing.
The NPS announced Sunday that it was taking the “extraordinary step” of using the money collected through entrance fees to pay staff to clean up overflowing bathrooms and mounting piles of trash at “highly visited” national parks.
“After consultation with the Office of the Solicitor at the Department of the Interior, it has been determined that these funds can and should be used to provide immediate assistance and services to highly visited parks during the lapse in appropriations,” Smith wrote in a press release.
However, Bernhardt’s memo suggests the number of parks that will reopen could be significantly more than just those that are most frequented.
Bernhardt wrote that he would “immediately modify” NPS’s shutdown contingency plan so that each park with “available balances” of fees collected under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) could use them immediately until they are gone.
He additionally directed Smith to provide him with a list of parks that either do not charge entrance fees or have no funds to pull from.
“Once I am provided the list, I will work with the Deputy Director to direct the expenditure of fees to promptly address those challenges,” he wrote.
“By making these improvements, we better ensure our parks are protected for future generations, while still providing appropriate opportunities for the enjoyment of the American people today.”
National parks are the source of a significant portion of recreational revenue generated at the Interior Department. NPS was the source of 73 percent of all recreational income within Interior in fiscal 2017. During that period recreational fee coffers stood at $285.21 million, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Critics argue, however, that pulling from the fees will have major repercussions to the NPS down the line, especially during the height of the season. Typically the fees go toward fixing the agency’s nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog. If $300 million is drained, it has to be replaced somehow.
Jonathan Jarvis, NPS director from 2009 to 2017 under former President Obama, said spending the fees could throw future maintenance, which is often planned five years in advance, completely out of whack.
“Let’s say you’re generating, on an annual basis, $3 million in revenue coming into your park, and you’ve got a $6 million project. So you’ve accumulated that fund so that you can take that project on. You’ve got it scheduled out, you’ve been doing the compliance, you’ve been getting the design drawings so you can execute, say, in fiscal ‘20. But that money is not obligated, it’s just in the account,” he said.
“This would potentially set back a project from when they had it scheduled.”
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), chairwoman of the Appropriations Interior subcommittee, called on Interior to instead close all parks while the shutdown continues.
“The law is clear: if the federal government is shut down, our National Parks must also be closed to protect public safety and pristine spaces. It is not acceptable to use FLREA funds to keep the parks open, and the Department of the Interior’s actions likely violate appropriations law,” she said in a statement Monday.
“While we would all like to see our National Parks reopen, President Trump must follow the law and only open them after both houses of Congress pass a bill to end his reckless shutdown and reopen the government.”
In a letter Bernhardt sent to Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) Sunday, obtained by The Hill, the acting secretary said the White House’s Office of Management and Budget approved his plan to pull from the park funds.
He added that if the fee funding runs out, more decisions would need to be made.
“If a prolonged lapse period occurs to the point that these fee accounts reach zero, I will need to make some additional decisions,” he wrote.
Timothy Cama contributed.