The Shutdown and What Really Happens to Nat’l Parks – How They Can Be Improved

By Nicolas Loris | January 28, 2019 | 10:15am EST
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, TEXAS - JANUARY 17: A sign informs visitors that an area is closed due to the partial government shutdown on January 17, 2019 in Big Bend National Park, Texas. The U.S. government is partially shutdown as President Donald Trump is asking for $5.7 billion to build additional walls along the U.S.-Mexico border and the Democrats oppose the idea. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Immediately after the partial federal government shutdown started, media outlets pointed to the damage the closure has inflicted on America’s national parks.

From overflowing trash and toilets to the cutting down of protected trees, there are obvious challenges to managing huge parks with skeleton staffs.  

After a shutdown that lasted more than a month, we have a number of observations—both positive and negative—that should spark a conversation about broader federal land management.

1.States, cities, private companies and volunteers are stepping up. Across the nation, nonprofits, volunteers, and state funds are offering solutions to keep parks clean and maintained.

A Muslim youth group in Philadelphia “cleaned up litter, emptied garbage cans, and swept the grounds” around Independence Hall, CNN reported. The state of Utah is “spending about $10,000 a day to keep visitors centers and custodial services going at Arches, Zion, and Bryce Canyon national parks,” local television reported. Volunteers are handing out maps and giving advice to the tourists visiting Joshua Tree National Park in California.

Hotels and private guide services are paying $7,500 a day to keep roads open and maintain some of the facilities. In addition, they’re hiring furloughed park employees for some of the work.

As research fellow Shawn Regan of the Property and Environment Research Center points out, “This differs markedly from the Obama administration’s shutdown plan, which required even privately run operations within parks that don’t rely on congressional appropriations to close.”

Park visitations are a good source of economic activity for local communities. As such, park closures don’t just hurt park employees, but also surrounding businesses and others. These communities have every incentive to find solutions because a closed park deprives them of economic opportunity.

2. Empowering park managers is a good thing. The Interior Department recently announced that national parks would use collected park fees for basic operations to keep parks clean and open during the shutdown.

Under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, 80 percent of generated revenue from user fees goes back to the parks. More than 100 national parks charge fees for entrance.

Placing authority into the hands of park managers, who have specialized knowledge to allocate resources for park priorities, allows park staff to address unique challenges within their own park. 

However, Tate Watkins, another Property and Environment Research Center research fellow, notes in a recent op-ed that the “underlying problem with the fee program is heavy-handed internal controls that agency administrators have imposed on local park staff.”

As Watkins points out, 55 percent of revenue must go toward deferred maintenance.  Not only is this restrictive, it’s also ineffective.

While the National Park Service’s deferred-maintenance backlog is problematic, agency decision makers in Washington shouldn’t restrict the ability of park managers to use revenue in ways that best support the park.  

3.Overflowing trash cans is a microcosm of the deferred-maintenance problem. Despite allocating funds to everyday operation, most national parks are unable to keep up routine maintenance under the shutdown.

The inability to keep up is not unique to the shutdown, however.

The National Park Service’s maintenance backlog—an aggregation of all delayed maintenance projects, including roads, bridges, parking lots, visitors centers, thousands of miles of trails, and sewage and utility systems—is estimated at more than $11.6 billion. Annual appropriations have consisted of a very small percentage of the overall backlog.  

The entire Interior Department estimates its maintenance backlog to be nearly $16 billion.

Addressing the backlog will improve the visitor experience for the 330 million people who visit America’s national parks every year.

There are a number of ways to accomplish this. Outdoor activities, food services and lodging provide economic opportunities, but also generate additional revenue that can amount to cleaner, safer national parks. 

Selling off excess lands would be a source of revenue and an opportunity for better management. Furthermore, Congress could dedicate funds accrued to the Land and Water Conservation Fund to address the current backlog.

The shutdown brings to light the fact that creative solutions exist to improve the environment of America’s national parks.

The shutdown ending shouldn’t end the conversation of how to address Interior’s maintenance backlog and why Congress should take decision-making out of Washington and place it in the hands of the people who know best how to manage the lands.    

Nicolas Loris, an economist, focuses on energy, environmental and regulatory issues as the Herbert and Joyce Morgan fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

Delayne Smith is a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation.

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Daily Signal.

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