National Park Service plans to pay full-time staff through entrance fees

The National Park Service (NPS) plans to pay the salaries of full-time staff from the money it collects from entrance fees, a move that is likely to enrage Democratic lawmakers who chastised the agency for dipping into the coffers to keep parks open during this year's partial government shutdown.

The new policy, authorized by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, lets NPS fund additional permanent positions at U.S. national parks and wildlife refuges through the revenue generated by entrance fees known as Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) fees, or "rec fees," according to a memo sent by Deputy Director Dan Smith to regional directors that was obtained by The Hill.

The move would circumvent Congress, which is traditionally tasked with providing funding for agency jobs.

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The memo, dated May 21, says certain parks will be eligible to take advantage of the “flexibility” of hiring new full-time staff or filling positions that have been left open because of a flat budget.

Rec fee funds are generated through the entrance fees charged to visitors at U.S. national parks. While not all national parks charge entrance fees, those that do must manage their own funds and are required by Congress to use them mostly for maintenance and operational purposes. Allowed uses include repairs, habitat restoration, law enforcement activities and covering costs related to collecting entrance fees.

Under current guidelines, only jobs related to maintenance and fee collection are allowed to be paid for through rec fees. The new guidance would broaden the use of those fees.

Smith argued in a separate internal memo he sent to Bernhardt, dated May 14, that NPS had the authority to change which positions are funded through entrance fees.

“The existing constraints are grounded in internal NPS management practices, not law. These NPS practices were adopted with an attempt to strike some balance between spending on day-to-day operations and longer-term ‘investments.’ However, NPS has reassessed that balance and believes an adjustment is appropriate,” read the May 14 memo obtained by The Hill.

The memo said the Interior Department would henceforth “discontinue” the internal practice of limiting usage of the rec fees from paying for permanent staff “to empower park superintendents to utilize FLREA funds to hire permanent employees engaged in FLREA related work.”

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Interior and the National Park Service did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The new policy marks the second time Interior under President TrumpDonald John TrumpJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency White House fires DHS general counsel: report Trump to cap California trip with visit to the border MORE has moved to dip into park entrance fee savings. Bernhardt in January made the unprecedented move to use reserve funds to keep various parks open during the record 35-day shutdown.

At the time, critics warned that using those funds would deplete necessary savings that go toward hiring seasonal workers and getting parks prepared for fire season and when park visits hit their annual peak. Lawmakers also warned it was likely illegal. Interior ultimately repaid the money after the shutdown ended with appropriated funds.

National parks are facing a nearly $11 billion maintenance backlog for repairs to roads, visitor centers and other infrastructure. Lawmakers are in the midst of considering 2020 funding for Interior.

Critics say Bernhardt’s decision to use rec fees highlights an impatience with Congress, which over the years has stretched funds for national parks.

“Originally the intent of the FLREA act was to augment appropriations, not to replace operations dollars,” said Emily Douce, director of budget and appropriations at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). “So we are continuing to be concerned that they are finding other ways to deal with the operational funding needs of our national parks. And that’s really up to Congress.”

Interior’s move also comes as the White House recommends cutting the agency budget by 14 percent for 2020.

One senior NPS law enforcement officer told The Hill that Bernhardt's decision is responding directly to longtime pleas from NPS staff who are seeing increased pools of money from rec fee revenue but no new investment in jobs.

"There’s an attitude in the department that they should shift the way they spend money, and there are a lot of parks out there that say, 'Hey you raised our entrance fees, and now we have a huge pool of money, but we don't have the staff to do the projects. So we need to loosen the rules,'" the law enforcement officer said.

Revenue from entrance fees is historically high, jumping 67 percent from $179.5 million to just shy of $300 million between 2013 and 2018, according to the NPS memo. 

That money, Smith said in the memo, could be used to support employment needs.

“As recreation fee revenue and associated projects continue growing, park staff are increasingly strained to support both day-to-day operational duties and work to properly plan for and execute recreation fee projects. This is particularly true for major deferred maintenance DM and construction projects,” read the May 14 memo.

Staff at national parks have declined 14 percent over the past seven years, according to the NPCA.

Yet Douce warned that dipping into entrance funds might set a bad precedent that could ultimately lower the amount of funding appropriated by Congress.

“It’s a slippery slope. Secretary Bernhardt is putting himself in a sticky situation where he is allowing operational dollars to be replaced by fee dollars. That gives appropriators on both sides of the aisle the leverage to say, ‘Interior doesn’t need as much funding from us. They can take care of their needs. They can use the fees.’”

Parks would be eligible to use the fees for staff salaries only if they collected enough entrance fee revenue to cover the cost of fee collection, met a 55 percent deferred maintenance requirement and covered the proposed salary costs, according to the memo.

NPS estimated that fewer than 30 national parks would meet the standard, including Joshua Tree National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Death Valley National Park.

Smith told staff that guidance on implementation would be provided to regional leadership in the coming days. The memos did not indicate when the new policy would take effect.