Interior approved $250M to keep parks open during shutdown

Interior approved $250M to keep parks open during shutdown
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Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt gave more than 100 national parks the green light to use more than $250 million in reserved government funds to stay open during the partial government shutdown, according to an internal letter obtained by The Hill on Friday.

Bernhardt told the National Park Service (NPS) director in January he was authorized to use $252.9 million in unobligated funds to bring back employees to maintain overrun and inundated national parks during the 35-day long shutdown, according to the letter.

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In the March 1 letter sent to Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallOvernight Energy: DC moves closer to climate lawsuit against Exxon | Dems call for ethics investigation into Interior officials | Inslee doubles down on climate in 2020 bid Dem lawmakers call for investigation into Interior officials over alleged ethics violations The Hill's 12:30 Report: Manafort sentenced to total of 7.5 years in prison MORE (D-N.M.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, Bernhardt explained the reasoning for the decision to allow certain parks to pull funds from the revenue generated through visitor entrance fees known as Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) funds.

“My direction on January 5 outlined a plan to use the available fees at specific parks in a manner that was squarely within the specified purposes within FLREA, including maintaining restrooms and sanitation, providing trash collection, maintaining roads, operating campgrounds, conducting law enforcement and emergency operations, and staffing entrance gates as necessary to provide critical safety information,” Bernhardt wrote Udall.

His letter was a response to lawmakers' earlier request for information regarding the recreation fee usage.

According to the letter, Interior initially authorized 83 parks to pull from the FLREA funds but later expanded that number to “more than 100 units.”

An internal breakdown attached to Bernhardt’s letter noted the parks that pulled from the recreation funds during the shutdown included Grand Canyon National Park, Glacier National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park.

The document also estimated that the 83 parks could last an average of 37 weeks before they ran out of funding through the use of recreational fees. Bernhardt in a previous memorandum dated Jan. 7 obtained by The Hill had directed NPS staff to drain funds until they reached a “zero balance.”

Interior’s decision to allow parks to pull from the recreation fees has been highly criticized by lawmakers.

The funds are typically used for park maintenance, seasonal worker hires and payments for employees to continue to collect future park fees. NPS workers during the shutdown feared that a zeroing out of the funds would create more future strain on already slim park budgets. Currently, Interior is facing a $12 billion maintenance backlog.

Critics also suggested that the move to use the funds was unlawful under FLREA, The National Park Service Organic Act and the Antideficiency Act.

Following the end of the shutdown, the top House Democrat overseeing the National Park Service’s funding formally asked in early February for an official probe of the Trump administration’s decision to use agency entrance fees to operate parks during the shutdown.

That same day though, Interior backtracked on the decision to pay unfurloughed employees through FLREA. Dan Smith, NPS’s deputy director and its top official, told staff in an emailed memo obtained by The Hill that the agency would reverse the earlier, controversial decision.  

Instead, the agency paid out employees through congressionally appropriated funds to pay for park maintenance and other operations the Trump administration authorized during the partial government shutdown.

Bernhardt, in his letter to Udall on Friday, defended the change and said Congress extended the appropriations through Feb. 15.

“The inclusion of this language enabled the Department of Interior (Department) to move obligations incurred during the appropriations lapse from FLREA fee account to the account for which the charges were originally planned,” he wrote.

Interior has yet to release the final total that NPS spent to keep parks running during the government shutdown but numbers are expected in April.

Bernhardt added that there was a “sound basis” for his decision to originally pull from the recreation fee funds, saying it provided “valuable direction” for future similar circumstances.

“It is my hope that you will review the enclosed decision documents in their entirety to fully understand the sound basis for my decisions and the valuable direction this will provide for similar situations in the future,” wrote Bernhardt.

Trump nominated Bernhardt in February to formally head Interior.

Udall spokesman Ned Adriance told The Hill that the senator "will be carefully reviewing Interior’s response to our inquiry, but he remains concerned by Interior’s decision to keep national parks open during the shutdown without sufficient resources to adequately protect visitor safety and natural and cultural resources."

"As an appropriator, he remains troubled by the agency’s decision to abruptly change its policy two weeks into the shutdown to allow recreation fees to be used to cover operating expenses at national parks, and he is working with the Government Accountability Office to determine whether that decision is consistent with Federal appropriations law. He is also concerned by the acting secretary’s comments that this action represents ‘valuable direction’ for the agency to follow in the event of a future government shutdown.”

Updated: 9:07 a.m.