Dems question legality of park fees during shutdown

The Trump administration’s decision to use national park entrance fees to clean up popular sites during the partial shutdown is raising concerns that the detrimental effects of such a move will extend far beyond the reopening of the government.

For decades, parks have used their fee revenue to help cover repairs and maintenance to visitor facilities, improve staffing and support law enforcement.

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The administration, however, is now planning to use those fees as a kind of operating budget, paying for things such as trash removal. And that’s setting off alarm bells among some park supporters.

“Burning through the fee reserves is a short-term, stopgap effort that will have consequences throughout the coming year or longer,” said Jonathan Jarvis, who was the National Park Service (NPS) director during the Obama administration.

The Trump administration has allowed most parks to stay open with minimal staffing since the shutdown began on Dec. 22. But doing so has resulted in overflowing trash cans, clogged toilets and habitat disruption that led to the closure of at least one national park.

Acknowledging a tipping point, acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Saturday instructed parks to use their fee revenue to pay for employees to maintain the sites. In his memo, NPS officers were instructed to zero-out their visitor fee accounts if necessary, a move that some warn would drastically impact them in the long term.

Fee revenue, which totaled $285.2 million in fiscal 2017, is collected from park visitors under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA).

There are 115 parks that collect entrance fees. By law, those parks must use at least 80 percent of the money they take in. That means parks can often plan out how they’ll use the funds in the coming years.

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Jarvis said he’s worried that those five-year plans will now be busted in light of the administration’s recent announcement.

“Fees are for enhancement of visitor services ... not for basic operations,” Jarvis said. “Those fee dollars were programmed out years in advance to address maintenance backlog, replacement of exhibits, new visitor accessibility, etc. These projects will now be halted or delayed.”

Deciding to dip into the fee money was a last-ditch effort by the Trump administration to keep parks open and operable during the shutdown. Trump and congressional Democrats have shown no signs of nearing a deal to reopen the government. 

Some Democratic lawmakers say Bernhardt has overstepped his statutory authority.

“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,” Rep. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumOvernight Energy: Wheeler weathers climate criticism at confirmation hearing | Dems want Interior to stop drilling work during shutdown | 2018 was hottest year for oceans Dems ask Interior to stop offshore drilling work during shutdown House chairman says Trump should close parks during shutdown MORE (D-Minn.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee with authority over the Interior’s budget, said in a statement. “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.”

The Obama and Clinton administrations, which both experienced prolonged shutdowns, closed parks and didn’t allow visitors unless the Park Service received donations to keep them open. That strategy sparked criticism from Republicans and the public at large, particularly in 2013 when there was footage of combat veterans being turned away at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said he plans to “demand answers about whether these moves [by Bernhardt] are legally justified.”

Some GOP lawmakers say the Interior Department is well within its rights given the circumstances of this shutdown.

Rep. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopOvernight Energy: House votes to reopen Interior, EPA | Dems question EPA over Wheeler confirmation prep | Virginia Dem backs Green New Deal Grijalva backs Bishop over current acting Interior Secretary Dems question legality of park fees during shutdown MORE (R-Utah), the ranking member on the Natural Resources panel, said in a Tuesday letter that the fee policy is legal.

“I believe that there exists an emergency involving the safety of human life or the protection of property at some NPS sites,” Bishop wrote in a letter to Bernhardt, citing an exception to federal spending law. “I commend your actions to minimize the lapse in appropriations’ disruption to the American people’s safe enjoyment of our public lands.”

Bishop nonetheless still asked Bernhardt for documents to justify the policy, including all communications relating to the Park Service’s legal authority to use fee revenue during shutdowns.

One NPS officer told The Hill that “the entire system could crash.”

“The big question is that if parks spend FLREA funds now with no reassurance that appropriated funds will be reallocated at the end of this shutdown, what happens during the summer?” said the employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Emily Douce, director for budget at the National Parks Conservation Association, said parks should not be required to use their fee money this way, adding it will exacerbate the Park Service’s deferred maintenance backlog that’s hovering around $12 billion.

During his 21-month tenure, former Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Major California utility PG&E filing for bankruptcy after wildfires | Zinke hired at investment firm | Barclays to avoid most Arctic drilling financing Zinke takes job at investment firm Trump taps Commerce watchdog to be new Interior inspector general MORE openly discussed the agency’s maintenance backlog as a reason to increase oil and gas drilling on public land. Yet during the previous government shutdown, Zinke said all parks should remain open and not held hostage to shutdown negotiations.

“This is not the way to go about business,” Douce said Tuesday. “Parks are already suffering from huge deferred maintenance needs and this will only add to the problem.”