Lawmakers stunned by national park shutdown funding reversal

Lawmakers and conservationists are dealing with whiplash after a stunning decision by the Trump administration this week to reverse course and retroactively use congressionally appropriated funds for maintenance costs incurred during the government shutdown.

Experts and politicians say they have grave concerns and even more questions about the new decision. The shift overwrites the controversial decision made in early January for the National Park Service (NPS) to pull from park entrance fee revenue to cover shutdown costs.

Lawmakers told The Hill they plan to investigate both the original decision and its reversal.

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“It’s amazing, we squandered assets through the shutdown for nothing,” said Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources committee, which oversees the Interior Department.

“This is a very bad precedent to give an administration such latitude that they are able to use predesignated funds and set them somewhere else without a challenge, so we intend to challenge that.”

NPS deputy direct Dan Smith announced last week that the NPS would no longer have to use the revenue obtained through park visitor entrance fees to pay for the maintenance and ranger oversight needed during the past government shutdown.

“We have confirmed with the [White House] Office of Management and Budget that the NPS can move obligations made during the appropriations lapse from the [Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act] fee account and apply those obligations to the National Park Service annual operating account," Smith said in an internal memo.

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

The announcement rolled back an earlier decision in January from Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt that parks would zero-out, if necessary, the entrance fee or FLREA funds in order to keep parks clean and maintained during the on-going government shutdown.

Lawmakers at the time said they would investigate the legality of the move.

An Interior Department spokesperson said "there is no reversal or change in policy."

"During the lapse in appropriations, department leadership recognized its statutory duty both to conserve park resources and provide for their enjoyment. As the lapse progressed, the Department identified that it could properly expend visitor entrance fees in support of that dual mandate and authorized the use of those fees," the spokesperson said. "In the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, Congress authorized the funds to be used in this way. In its recent continuing resolution, Congress enacted an appropriation that covered the expenses of operating the Park System during the lapse. The Department is now using that money to cover expenses that were previously covered by the fees, replenishing the recreation fee accounts. This frees up the fee amounts to be used for other authorized purposes, including park maintenance projects."

The shutdown ultimately lasted five weeks. The final amount used by parks during the shutdown has not yet been calculated or released, according to a spokesperson.

To the park community, last week’s new announcement came as a sigh of relief. The entrance fee revenues are important sources of funding for ongoing park maintenance and seasonal hiring. If the funds were to be diminished entirely, rangers and other park advocates feared that parks would not be able to function as normal in the highly trafficked summer months.

“It should have never been considered. It’s a good decision to restore the fee money-- that fee money is vitally important for what is being planned right now for summer season and to do the seasonal hiring,” said one former park superintendent.

The reason for the reversal, the ranger suspected, was a lack of legal basis for the decision to pull from the recreation funds in the first place.

“The original legislation is quite specific about how those funds can be used. So many people smelled a rat,” the former superintendent said. “I think it was that it was a violation of congressional law and it took some time for everyone to catch up to that who were making the decisions.”

Internal NPS guidance obtained by the Hill at the beginning of February indicated that the agency was rethinking the decision.

However, politicians fear the decision to retroactively change the payment source sets a dangerous precedent, allowing the Trump administration to pick and choose when to spend money however it sees fit.

“The Park Service’s sudden reversal just raises further questions about this administration’s disregard for Congress’ constitutional power of the purse. We’ll continue to conduct thorough oversight and hold this admin accountable for their actions,” tweeted Rep. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumDeLauro enters race to succeed Lowey as Appropriations chief Trump impeachment calls snowball, putting pressure on Pelosi Leave park operations — and fee revenues — to the parks MORE (D-Minn.), chairman of the Interior-Environment Subcommittee for the House Appropriations Committee.

Earlier last week, McCollum held a shutdown-focused hearing that questioned the legality of fee use by parks under the Anti-deficiency Act. She said she would be asking the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate.

A staffer for McCollum’s office confirmed to The Hill that the latest reversal would be included in the scope of that investigation.

Grijalva said he believed the reversal was based on politics as much as legal fears. Trump last week formally nominated Bernhardt to head the Interior Department. Therefore, he will soon be facing a full Senate confirmation hearing.

“It’s his confirmation hearing number one, and I think those are questions they didn’t want to have to deal with and opposition he didn’t want to have to deal with,” said the lawmaker.

“Fundamentally, I think because they were legally wrong to continue the practice. I think it would have been proven as such. But they did do the practice and they need to be investigated and corrected so that precedent is not set.”

-Updated 3:11 p.m.