When a pipeline in Grand Canyon National Park sprung several leaks last month, restaurants there were told to serve food on disposable dishes. Waiters were instructed to pour glasses of water only by request, while sinks in public restrooms were turned off until the problem was fixed.
Repairing worn-out infrastructure across 417 national park sites can be costly, and the National Park Service is facing a whopping $11.6 billion maintenance backlog. That Grand Canyon pipeline alone has broken more than 80 times since 2010.
So the Trump administration, with the help of Congress, is getting resourceful: It now wants to pay for the park upgrades with money the government collects from the development of oil, natural gas, wind and solar energy on public lands.
“It’s a creative way of solving a problem, and it really solves the problem,” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), head of the House Natural Resources Committee and an administration ally, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
The plan to push revenue from royalty payments and lease sales into park repairs is designed to appeal to most fiscal conservative Republicans and enough environmentally minded Democrats to get it across the finish line.
The logic is straightforward, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said. “I think if you’re going to gain resource and wealth from public lands, then a fair proposition is, you should also contribute to the maintenance backlog and preservation of those lands,” he recently told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
But some Democrats worry about tying the viability of the park system to expanded drilling on- and offshore, one of President Trump’s highest energy priorities.
Since most energy revenue comes from oil and gas, they note, the nation may come to depend on ever more fossil-fuel development to finance one of the most popular parts of the federal government.
“The proposal in the budget is backward,” Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said at a hearing. “Our most treasured places should not have to depend on the fortune of the energy industry for their success and failure.”
Grijalva wants Congress to repair parks with money from the regular appropriations process. Earlier this year, the Trump administration proposed cutting the Park Service’s budget by 8 percent; instead, Congress raised it by 9 percent.
But Bishop argues that money has been wasted that way in the past. “A long time ago, when I was still younger and liked this place, when we passed a stimulus bill with all sorts of new money that went to the Park Service, [it] didn’t solve the problem,” Bishop said. “They increased their administration, but it didn’t solve the problem.”
In coordination with Zinke, Bishop and his counterparts in the Senate sponsored bills to create the park maintenance fund. It drew a sizable number of Democratic backers in both chambers.
“If we all agree that addressing deferred maintenance at our parks and public lands is a priority, then we should be able to find a bipartisan solution that would allow the National Park Service adequate resources to seriously address its maintenance backlog,” said Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources subcommittee on federal lands and a sponsor of two of the bills.
One legislative proposal backed by Zinke would funnel half of onshore and offshore revenue not already dedicated to fund other priorities into an account to build roads, bridges and other infrastructure with national parks. That design is meant to ensure the existing Land and Water Conservation Fund, used to buy land for federal, state and local parks nationwide, does not get shortchanged.
The Trump administration hopes to fill the maintenance fund with up to $18 billion. “We think we can get there in eight years,” Zinke told Congress.
Yet there is no guarantee that the price of oil, set by global market forces, or that coastal states, rich in offshore oil but unwilling to work with Trump to extract it, will cooperate to generate the amount of money the Trump administration projects.
Matt Lee-Ashley, who is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and is a former deputy chief of staff at the Interior Department, called the proposal “a dubious, speculative and uncertain approach to infrastructure investment.”
The reliability of energy revenue is a concern some Republicans share.
“Your proposal, as we look at it, does not have guaranteed funding,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) told Zinke at a hearing last month. Portman has introduced a bill with Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) that includes a steadier stream of money for a national parks fund.
The park system’s backlog of repairs, which include needed work on the Arlington Memorial Bridge crossing the Potomac River and on the Grand Loop Road connecting attractions at Yellowstone National Park, ballooned over the past decade as visits surged annually. The total number of visitors to the park systems grew from 273 million in 2006 to 331 million in 2017. At the same time, the number of sites in the park system grew from 390 to 417.
Still, money allocated by Congress has not kept pace during the same period, with the Park Service’s budget remaining more or less flat.
“It’s fun to create a park,” Bishop said. “It’s a legacy that people always have. But we have never really funded the expansion of those parks.”
The national park system, often billed as “America’s best idea,” usually garners bipartisan support. Shortly before leaving office, President Barack Obama signed into law the National Park Service Centennial Act, which aimed to attract private donations to match public spending on park improvements. The bill passed the House with strong bipartisan support and passed the Senate with unanimous consent.
But philanthropy can go only so far. “Private-sector money wants to do high-profile things,” Bishop said. “They’re not going to really fund sewer systems.”
The Park Service has also turned to leasing out park assets to help pay for maintenance. For example, the agency has leased out a historic hangar in southeast Brooklyn to house a metering facility for the Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co. and is renting out space at Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas to a brewery.
The Park Service touts such contracts as a one-two punch, since lessees pay rent and “assume all maintenance, deferred and new since properties can be leased ‘as-is,’ ” said spokesman Jeremy Barnum. “Lessees are also required to insure the properties that they use and occupy.”
But park officials acknowledge such arrangements only make small dents in the nearly $12 billion backlog.
It remains unclear how parkgoers would also feel about using private-sector money to pay for park repairs.
Just as some activists object to more oil rigs on public lands, parkgoers also do not always support the presence of private firms during nature trips. More than 25,000 petitioners at Change.org have asked for Yosemite National Park to consider renting out a space now leased to Starbucks to a local business instead.
“Multinational corporations have no place in our National Parks,” the petition read.
Another Trump administration proposal for raising park revenue has faced even more backlash. Interior Department officials are now backing away from a plan to dramatically increase entrance fees at popular national parks after weathering criticism from members of Congress and the public, in the form of more than 100,000 public comments opposed to the idea.