Democrats in Congress are demanding answers about a plan by the Trump administration to use visitor fees toward the operation of popular national parks during the partial government shutdown, claiming that the move could be illegal.
As the shutdown enters its third week, the overflowing port-a-potties and trash bins at many National Park Service sites have become icons of the impasse between President Trump and Democrats in Congress over funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
With the parties unable to come to a compromise, officials at the Interior Department, which oversees the national parks, are seeking novel ways of coping with the shutdown's impacts. Over the weekend, David Bernhardt, the acting interior secretary, signed a memorandum over the weekend allowing park managers to bring on additional staff to clean bathrooms, patrol parks and otherwise keep many sites up and running with money collected through entrance fees, The Post's Juliet Eilperin reports.
But Top House Democrats view that plan with skepticism since federal law designates such fees to support visitor services — and not other park operations.
“The Department of Interior is very likely violating appropriations law,” Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who is set to lead the House Appropriations subcommittee on Interior, environment and related agencies, told Eilperin on Sunday. “I want to see our parks open, but I want to see our entire government open the right way, following the law.”
Similarly, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement Sunday his panel "will demand answers about whether these moves are legally justified."
“President Trump and his advisors apparently just woke up to the fact that the shutdown they created several weeks ago has done terrible damage to our country," he added.
The threat is the latest point of tension between Democrats in Congress and Republicans in the Trump administration over reopening the federal government. It is also yet another sign that House Democrats plan to aggressively scrutinize the Interior Department despite the recent departure of its former leader, Ryan Zinke, whose personal ethical problems had become the focus of criticism of the department.
Historically, the closure of museums and zoos in Washington and national parks elsewhere the country have been among the highest-profile consequences of the government shutdowns. But past presidential administrations have chosen to block access to many parks, such as Joshua Tree in Southern California, rather than leave them open with limited staff, as the Trump administration has done in some instances.
In Joshua Tree, for example, that decision led to "deteriorating" conditions like overflowing trashcans and unserviced restrooms, The Post’s Joel Achenbach, Meghann Cuniff and John Waters report. Some feared that visitors during this period could do permanent damage and want the park closed to visitors, which it was during a government shutdown in 2013.
Meanwhile at Yosemite, two campgrounds were shuttered because visitors were using the roadside as a toilet, the Los Angeles Times reports. Park officials are urging campers to use facilities at nearby communities before they enter the 750,000-acre park.
As the shutdown grinds on, volunteers are trying to fill the void. Across the country, private groups and volunteers are trying to make up for the lack of upkeep at national parks by cleaning them up themselves, with no guarantee of reimbursement, The Post’s Michael E. Ruane reports.
“In Vicksburg, Miss., the Friends of Vicksburg National Military Park and Campaign are paying $2,000 a day to keep the park open during the federal government shutdown," Ruane writes. "In New York, the state is paying $65,000 a day to operate the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island... The Utah Office of Tourism, meanwhile, is providing money to staff visitor centers and to continue custodial services at Arches, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks.”
Paulina Firozi contributed to this report.
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THE IMPACT OF THE SHUTDOWN
Deaths in national parks during the shutdown: At least three people died in separate accidents in areas part of Arizona's Glen Canyon Recreation Area, Yosemite National Park in California and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the days after the Trump administration chose to keep the parks open even as government operations were halted. "Several former Park Service officials, along with the system’s advocates, said in interviews that activities such as viewing animals and hiking outdoors can carry a greater risk when fewer employees are present," The Post's Darryl Fears and Eilperin write.
Beyond the parks: Government scientists are facing setbacks during the shutdown, with frozen funds forcing them to leave their labs and stay home from conferences. Workers are furloughed and research and studies are stalled. Leland S. Stone, who works at a NASA center in California, told the New York Times: “Most taxpayers don’t want to pay taxes and not get the progress they’re paying for. Is it the end of the universe? Is it the end of America as we know it? No. But is it pointless? Is it avoidable?”
Not all scientists are impacted: Some at the Energy Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health are unaffected. But still, along with the Park Service, workers at the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including the National Weather Service, have mostly been furloughed, per the Times.
A NEW CONGRESS, A NEW CLIMATE FOCUS
The threat of our time: In her opening address as the new House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi mentioned the crisis of climate change and referenced a new select panel that will address solutions for the issue. "We must ... face the existential threat of our time: the climate crisis," Pelosi said during the Thursday remarks. "The entire Congress must work to put an end to the inaction and denial of science that threaten the planet and the future."
Pelosi said Friday the House plans to revisit a climate bill reminiscent of a 2009 cap-and-trade legislation that passed the House but stalled in the Senate, Bloomberg News reports. “We couldn’t pass in the Senate our climate bill, and we’ll be returning to that,” Pelosi said during remarks at a Trinity Washington University event.
Before the new year, Pelosi appointed Rep. Kathy Castor to chair the new select climate committee, touting the Florida Democrat as a "proven champion for public health and green infrastructure."
It is with great enthusiasm that I appoint @USRepKCastor as the Chair of our new Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. We know she will bring great experience, energy & urgency to confronting this existential threat. https://t.co/PtKVsvvxXk pic.twitter.com/Ow3ukDfTuS— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) December 28, 2018
First order of business: Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, announced the panel's first hearing of the new Congress would be on climate. “Part of the reason why we want to deal with climate change first is because of the necessity, because of what’s happening, the acceleration of global warming,” he told reporters, per The Hill. “But it’s also the fact that we haven’t been able to have any hearings on that issue, because the Republicans wouldn’t allow it.”
A tax threat: Newly sworn-in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) suggested a dramatically high income tax rate of up to 60 or 70 percent to combat carbon emissions. “There’s an element where yeah, people are going to have to start paying their fair share in taxes.” Ocasio-Cortez said during a "60 Minutes" interview .
In his final note on departmental stationary, the interior secretary bid farewell last Wednesday, calling it a “high honor to serve the president and the American People as @ Interior Secretary.” “He departed amid a partial government shutdown forced by the president that left garbage piled high at the national parks he oversaw,” The Post’s Fears wrote.
It's been a high honor to serve @POTUS & the American People as @Interior Secretary. We've restored public lands “for the benefit & enjoyment of the people,” improved public access & shall never be held hostage again for our energy needs. God bless America & those who defend her. pic.twitter.com/JXzVmrpDTg— Secretary Ryan Zinke (@SecretaryZinke) January 2, 2019
The probes continue: As he exited, Zinke faced at least five open investigations into his actions and behavior at the helm of the department. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is investigating whether Zinke lied to Interior inspector general investigators during various probes. Investigators believe Zinke may have lied to the them during interviews for two inquiries, and referred the issue to the Justice Department, The Post’s Eilperin, Matt Zapotosky, Josh Dawsey and Lisa Rein report. The department has been questioning witnesses in an effort to scrutinize Zinke’s account.
Zinke defends his legacy: In an interview with the Associated Press, the recently departed secretary insisted he left the administration on his own terms and that Trump remained supportive of him until his last day. He also denied to the AP allegations in the Post report that investigators believed he may have lied, saying political attacks against him were part of a "playbook" from critics to undermine him and the Trump administration.
No rush to replace Zinke: Trump told reporters on Sunday he’s in no rush to replace the acting members of his Cabinet, and praised some of the acting members, including Interior's Bernhardt. Andrew Wheeler is also still in an acting role at EPA after Trump said last year he would nominate him to run the agency permanently. “I sort of like ‘acting,’ ” Trump said, The Post’s Felicia Sonmez reports. “It gives me more flexibility; do you understand that? I like ‘acting.’
— Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Kevin J. McIntyre died last Wednesday because of brain cancer, The Post’s Steven Mufson reports. The 58-year-old McIntyre had stepped down from his role has chairman of the commission in October, citing health problems, though he remained on the panel. He had been diagnosed with a brain tumor in the summer of 2017. At the head of the panel, McIntyre led the response to a proposal by Energy Secretary Rick Perry to subsidize struggling coal and nuclear plants, a proposal the commission unanimously rejected.
“Mr. McIntyre’s death opens up the possibility that Trump could seek to alter the balance of the commission on competitive markets,” Mufson writes. “The commission, which has two Democrats and two remaining Republicans, is also charged with approving utility mergers and the construction of liquefied natural gas facilities.”
In a statement, McIntyre's family thanked the panel and McIntyre's immediate team for their support. “Kevin often said that being Chairman of FERC was his ‘dream job’ – he truly loved and believed in the agency, its mission, and its people," the statement said. "He was always energized by the challenge of leading the agency ‘full steam ahead,’ even when his health faltered. His commitment to his duty, and his faith in the FERC team, never wavered. We will always be grateful for the opportunity, however brief, that Kevin had to serve our country as FERC Chairman.”
— “This is not a problem you can run away from”: The Post’s Brady Dennis reports on the town of Parchment, Mich., along the banks of the Kalamazoo River, the latest community impacted by the threat of unregulated chemicals — a class of compounds known as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — in its drinking water. Last year, the Trump administration sought to block publication of a study calling for a lower threshold of exposure of the chemicals used in products like nonstick cookware and water-repellent fabrics. “The compounds’ presence has rattled communities from Hoosick Falls, N.Y., to Tucson. They have been particularly prevalent on or near military bases, which have long used PFAS-laden foams in training exercises,” Dennis writes.
- The National Council for Science and the Environment’s 2019 annual conference begins.
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds an event on “The Launch of the Stephenson Ocean Security Project” on Wednesday.
- The USAID holds an event on “Emerging Markets for U.S. Smart Grid Suppliers and Investors in Africa, Asia and Latin America” on Wednesday.
- The Environmental and Energy Study Institute holds an event on “Reframing Energy for the 21st Century” on Friday.
— Roadkill, it's what's for dinner: A growing number of states, with Oregon being the latest as of January, are legalizing the eating of roadkill, The Post's Karin Brulliard reports. “It’s meat. Whether you buy it in a store or pick it up on the side of the road, it’s the same thing. In the stores, it’s packaged with Styrofoam and plastic, which maybe looks pretty but is harmful to the environment,” said Thomas Elpel, a Montana author and wilderness survival instructor whose how-to video on the practice is posted on YouTube. “It’s a more authentic way to connect with your food supply."