Park Service defends funds used to stay open during shutdown

Democrats grilled National Park Service (NPS) leadership about the decision to keep parks open during last year’s government shutdown as the agency defended its 2020 budget on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

NPS Deputy Director Dan Smith appeared before a House Appropriations subcommittee to defend a budget that makes nearly $500 million in cuts to the agency.

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But beyond budget cuts to an agency overseeing parks that received an increase in visitors last year, many Democrats were also concerned about damage to the parks sustained during the 35-day partial government shutdown. The shutdown decreased overall revenue given the absence of paid entry fees.

Heaping trashcans, overflowing bathrooms, and off-road drives through Joshua Tree National Park made headlines. The damage was rectified quickly, Smith said, once workers were able to go into the parks “a day or two” after the shutdown.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: 'I will not let Iran have nuclear weapons' Rocket attack hits Baghdad's Green Zone amid escalating tensions: reports Buttigieg on Trump tweets: 'I don't care' MORE committed to keeping national parks open during the shutdown, and the National Park Service was able to keep many parks open by tapping into $250 million in Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) funds. Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt gave permission to drain funds until they reached a “zero balance.”

But lawmakers and conservationists have long questioned whether FLREA funds may be used to keep the parks open, given that the funding is designated for improvement of parks rather than day-to-day operations. Smith said he believes the funds were used appropriately and only regrets not authorizing them to be used immediately in order to avoid some of the maintenance issues that captured public attention.

“I believe it was the right decision,” Smith said of using the funds.

Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanOvernight Energy: Dems dismiss Interior chief's work calendars as 'fake' | Buttigieg climate plan includes carbon tax | Poll finds growing number say climate is crucial 2020 issue Dem criticizes newest calendars for Trump Interior chief as 'fake' Human rights bill on ANWR ignores humans and their rights MORE (D-Calif.) disagreed, saying keeping the parks open presented public health and safety issues.

“I’m not sure I would agree with you that it was no big deal. I personally saw overflowing trashcans, vandalism, human waste was piled up in restrooms and other places in some of our parks, to the point that some of your personnel were thinking they may need to call hazmat teams to clean them up,” Huffman said.

Also of concern to many on the subcommittee is the National Park Service’s nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog, up from $11.6 billion last year.

Rep. Jody HiceJody Brownlow HiceOvernight Energy — Presented by Job Creators Network — House Republican tries to force Green New Deal vote | 'Awkward' hearing to vet Interior nominee and watchdog | House panel approves bill to stop drilling in Arctic refuge House Republican moves to force vote on Green New Deal House Republican plans discharge petition on Green New Deal MORE (R-Ga.) said the problem is growing faster than the park service can keep up, leaving Congress to authorize additional funding obtained from oil and gas royalty payments on federal lands.

“I fear that if the park service does not implement its own plan to address these issues rather than rely on these particular funds, we're going to be right back here 10 years from now,” Hice said. “The American people need those energy revenues for other things, not as a de facto piggy bank for parks service.”

The number of annual visitors to national parks has been growing, but the budget would cut the number of full-time employees for the agency along with funding in several areas.

Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands Chairwoman Deb HaalandDebra HaalandOvernight Energy: Dems press Interior chief to embrace climate action | Lawmakers at odds on how to regulate chemicals in water | Warren releases climate plan for military Warren releases plan to tackle climate change threats to military House Dem's bill would require ride-hailing companies to cover drivers' Social Security costs MORE (D-N.M.) said the budget would bring funding back to 2010 levels, calling it “reckless and irresponsible. It shows a total disregard for our country’s cultural and historic sites.”