WASHINGTON — U.S. House Democrats today berated the Trump administration for its proposal to cut funding next year at national parks across the west.
At issue is President Trump’s proposed $2.7 billion budget for the National Park Service next year. Funding would fall 15 percent under the proposal, taking the agency down to spending levels from a decade ago, according to Democrats.
Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees parks, called the budget proposal “reckless and irresponsible” at a hearing on Wednesday. The proposed reductions come at a time when visitation levels and maintenance problems are both on the rise at national parks, which are seeing millions of new visitors each year.“It shows a total disregard for our country’s cultural and historical sights, scenic and environmental attributes,” Haaland said at the hearing in the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. “It puts our resources at risk.”
The National Park Service oversees 417 national parks and historic sights, which range from huge parks like the Grand Canyon and Death Valley to smaller historic sites and trails within cities.
But years of wear and tear on park roads, buildings, and trails have added up to a massive maintenance backlog of nearly $12 billion, according to the agency. Colorado’s 13 national parks, which attracted 7.6 million visitors in 2017, have a maintenance backlog nearing $250 million, according to the agency’s data. Rocky Mountain National Park alone saw a record 4.6 million visitors in 2018, and its maintenance backlog is $84 million. Those delayed projects include repairs to washed out trails, busted bridges and damaged roads.
Addressing deferred maintenance is a “top priority” for the administration, according to Dan Smith, deputy director for the National Park Service. He defended the budget proposal as the best they could do, given other spending constraints.
“I believe it helps me maintain the mission of the National Park Service in times of very, very strenuous visitation limits and a deferred maintenance backlog that is crippling us,” Smith told lawmakers.
The administration proposes funding levels for agencies and programs each year, but it is up to Congress to set the spending levels in its annual appropriations bills.
Lawmakers said today the administration’s numbers don’t add up.
“How do you justify a $480 million cut to the National Park Service when the roadways have potholes, there is vandalism during the shutdown, and visitation is at record high levels?” Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) said at the hearing.
Nevada parks alone have more than 7 million visitors each year and an almost $220 million maintenance backlog, Horsford said.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) warned that Trump’s budget request would also be a blow to Native American tribes and his constituents in downtown Phoenix, due to cuts in the park service’s historic preservation fund. The fund — cut by two-thirds in the administration’s budget — hands out grants for community preservation projects.
“We depend heavily on the historic preservation fund because the state has failed to provide any funding for our historic preservation office in years,” said Gallego, whose district has over 7,000 historic homes. “Without strong federal funding, the responsible stewardship of thousands of historic places in Arizona would be nearly impossible.”
Smith said historic preservation is a priority for the park service, but that the National Park Service took precedence.
The preservation fund is also significant for Native American tribes that operate their own preservation offices. In response to questioning from Gallego, Smith said the agency did not consult with tribes on the funding proposal.
“Well, at least you admit it,” Gallego said, laughing and shaking his head.
The Arizona congressman said consulting with tribes should be a minimum when crafting a budget proposal.
Allison Winter is a Washington, D.C., correspondent for The Newsroom. John Herrick contributed to this report