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 TrumpMarine unit in Florida reportedly pushing to hold annual ball at Trump property Giuliani clashes with CNN's Cuomo, calls him a 'sellout' and the 'enemy' Giuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it 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 HuffmanThe Hill's Morning Report - Pompeo condemns Iran for 'act of war' while Trump moves with caution Democrats bicker over strategy on impeachment Overnight Energy: Trump administration to repeal waterway protections| House votes to block drilling in Arctic refuge| Administration takes key step to open Alaskan refuge to drilling by end of year 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 HiceGOP lawmakers, states back gunmaker in Sandy Hook appeal GOP lawmakers call for provisions barring DOD funds for border wall to be dropped House conservatives call for ethics probe into Joaquin Castro tweet 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: Trump tweets he's revoking California's tailpipe waiver | Move comes as Trump visits state | California prepares for court fight | Climate activist Greta Thunberg urges lawmakers to listen to scientists Coalition of farmers and ranchers endorses Green New Deal Lawmakers beat reporters in annual spelling bee competition 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.”