Trump administration spent more than $10 million in collected fees to keep parks open during shutdown

Trump administration spent more than $10 million in collected fees to keep parks open during shutdown
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The Trump administration used nearly $10.3 million in reserved park entrance revenues to keep several national parks open during the 35-day government shutdown earlier this year.

The figure, released by the National Park Service (NPS) to The Hill days before the end of this fiscal year, shows how much the administration was willing to spend in reserved park fees to keep the parks open while most of the government was shut down.

The money the Interior Department spent to keep the parks open is usually used for maintenance projects and seasonal hiring. In this case, Interior brought back staff to offer basic visitor services, clean bathrooms, remove trash and to conduct other custodial needs during the shutdown, according to details provided by the NPS.

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The money was used across more than 100 parks over the 35-day partial government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history, according to internal NPS documents previously reported by The Hill.

Then-acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt had initially authorized the NPS to drain the $250 million in revenues known as recreation fees or Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) funds if needed to keep the parks open during the shutdown.

In addition to the $10.3 million spent from those accounts, Interior lost between $10 million and $11 million in visitor fee revenue it could not collect during the shutdown, according to internal emails.

The newly released numbers come the same month the Government Accountability Office (GAO) ruled that Bernhardt, who is now the Interior secretary, lacked the authority to dip into the FLREA funds, and broke the law on two accounts by doing so.

In their Sept. 5 report, GAO officials blasted Interior for failing to comply with requests for information surrounding their decision to use the recreation fees and for a general lack of responsiveness during the investigation. 

“Interior disregarded not only the laws themselves but also the congressional prerogatives that underlie them. Instead of carrying out the law, Interior improperly imposed its own will,” Thomas Armstrong, GAO general counsel, wrote in his 16-page legal opinion.

Interior officials fought back, arguing in a letter dated the next day that the agency had a history of using such funds for custodial needs. 

“The assessment that FLREA permits the use of such funds for visitor services such as maintaining clean restrooms and picking up trash is not a new one. Going back to at least 2014, Interior has used FLREA fees for these purposes dozens of times,” wrote Edward Keable, Interior’s associate solicitor general, to GAO in a 320-page memo obtained by The Hill.

“The use of FLREA fees to maintain public access to National Parks during the lapse in appropriations was consistent with Congress's intent in enacting such Act. More importantly, preserving the health of the Parks for the American people was the duty of the Secretary.”

In a separate letter, Interior's deputy solicitor for general law Gregory Zerzan knocked Armstrong for releasing his report before getting Interior’s memo, which Zerzan claims GAO knew was in the works.

“I must also express the department’s profound disappointment that GAO did not await our reply before issuing its report, which we initially learned of through inquiries from the press. As the GAO knew, through multiple conversations with career attorney’s at the department, Interior was working on a response that would have addressed many of the questions you raised in your report,” Zerzan wrote.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) cast aside Interior’s justification of spending the fees, arguing any amount used during a government shutdown was unlawful.

“The Trump administration forced a government shutdown, and Interior Department broke the law to protect itself from public outrage at the consequences. Thanks to GAO, that much isn’t even in dispute,” said Grijalva in a statement to The Hill. 

“The administration’s willingness to commit a crime and then refuse to accept responsibility for it when confronted is the key issue here, whether it cost ten million dollars or ten dollars. Unfortunately, this fits a pattern of lawlessness that goes back to the Trump administration’s earliest days and shows little sign of ending before this president leaves office.”