Park Service backtracks, won’t use entrance fees to pay for shutdown operations

Park Service backtracks, won’t use entrance fees to pay for shutdown operations
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The National Park Service (NPS) will retroactively pull from congressionally appropriated funds to pay for the park maintenance and other operations the Trump administration authorized during the partial government shutdown, according to an internal NPS memo obtained by The Hill Wednesday.

Dan Smith, NPS’s deputy director and its top official, told staff in an emailed memo that the agency will reverse its earlier, controversial decision to use park visitor entrance fees to pay for maintenance and staffing needs under the shutdown.

Instead, he said the NPS will use money from the spending bill Congress approved to end the shutdown to pay for those costs.

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“We have confirmed with the [White House] Office of Management and Budget that the NPS can move obligations made during the appropriations lapse form the FLREA fee account and apply those obligations to the National Park Service annual operating account," Smith said, making reference to “rec fees” collected under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA).

That law lays out specific allowable uses for the collected fees, including improving visitor access and enhancing law enforcement.

“In short, Congress has enabled us to fully restore the FLREA account to pre-lapse levels,” Smith said.

During the five-week government shutdown, the Trump administration opted to leave national parks open despite the furloughing of a majority of park staff. The decision lead to a number of maintenance issues at parks, including clogged bathrooms, overflowing trash cans and at times the misuse of park sites. Joshua Tree National Park and other parks in the West  felt the heaviest burden, as the shutdown occurred during the height of their visitation season.

Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in early January made the unprecedented move to let parks pull from their visitor entrance fees to allow staff to return to run the parks.

The decision generated immediate criticism from conservation groups and Democrats, who argued that it was both illegal and short-sighted, since parks use that money for major maintenance projects.

Now Smith says it will be unnecessary to follow Bernhardt’s guidance.

“Congress extended appropriations through February 15 and wisely made such funds available to cover the period during which there was a lapse,” he wrote in the memo with the subject line “Good News on FLREA Fund Used during the lapse in appropriations.”

The text of the appropriation states that the money is made available for a time period that “shall be considered to include the period which began on or about December 22, 2018,” when the shutdown began.

It's not known how much money NPS spent to continue its operations during the shutdown.

An internal NPS communication obtained by The Hill over the weekend suggested that the Trump administration was reconsidering the use of the visitor entrance fees.

“There is a legal review of those charges to determine if they will stay with rec fee or if some will be moved to ONPS,” NPS regional fee manager Cindy David told Pacific West Region staff in an email Friday.

ONPS are the appropriated funds given by Congress to the national park system.

Smith’s announcement Wednesday came shortly after Rep. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumOvernight Energy: Interior watchdog opens investigation into new secretary | Warren unveils 2020 plan to stop drilling on public lands | Justices reject case challenging state nuclear subsidies | Court orders EPA to re-evaluate Obama pollution rule Interior watchdog launches ethics probe into new secretary EPA chief doubles down on Trump's commitment to fully fund Great Lakes program MORE (D-Minn.), chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee panel that oversees the Interior Department’s budget, asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to determine whether it was illegal to use park fees to pay for operations during the shutdown.

McCollum argues that multiple laws including the Antideficiency Act prohibit the use of those funds for day-to-day operations, because Congress designated them otherwise.

“The law prohibits the executive branch from spending federal tax dollars unless those dollars have been expressly appropriated by Congress,” she said at a Wednesday hearing on the matter. “Money can only be used for specific purposes authorized by Congress.”

“I’m more than convinced, sadly, that the administration has ignored the law and the policies that the agencies have had in place for years to protect our citizens and our public lands,” McCollum said.

McCollum said later Wednesday that the new plan doesn't allay her concerns.

"I continue to have deep concerns about the disregard for appropriations law by Trump administration officials at the Department of the Interior," she said.

"It’s clear from my hearing this morning that the Antideficiency Act does not allow for the haphazard shifting of pots of money. The constitutional authority to allocate federal taxpayer dollars lies with Congress, not the Executive Branch — and I will continue to ask questions, conduct thorough oversight, and hold this administration accountable for their actions during the shutdown."

Interior did not immediately respond to a request for comment.