Statement for the Record
Philip A. Francis, Jr.
Chair of the Executive Council
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies
Committee on Appropriations
House of Representatives
Hearing on FY 2021 Budget for the National Park Service
March 6, 2020
Rep. McCollum, Rep. Joyce, and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to provide a statement for the record on behalf of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition) regarding the FY 2021 Budget for the National Park Service.
I am a long-time member of the Coalition, including having served as the chair of the Executive Council for the past two years. I retired from the National Park Service in 2013 after eight years as superintendent of Blue Ridge Parkway, and a total of 41 years of government service with the NPS. My work with the Park Service included service as administrative officer at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Shenandoah National Park, and Yosemite National Park. I also served as associate regional director, administration, for the Southwest region, and as deputy superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains, including three years as acting superintendent.
The Coalition is comprised of more than 1,700 members who collectively have nearly 40,000 years of experience managing and protecting national parks. We believe that our parks and public lands represent the very best of America, and advocate for their protection.
The 419 units of the National Park System, encompassing 85 million acres across all 50 states and four territories, are enjoyed annually by millions of people from our country and around the world. In 2019, more than 327.5 million people came to see the spectacular natural, historic, and cultural resources that the parks preserve. The National Park Service also impacts even more of our citizens through a number of grant and technical assistance programs that facilitate the preservation of our nation’s natural, cultural, and historic resources beyond the national parks in a partnership between the National Park Service and hundreds of individuals and organizations throughout the country.
This work would not be possible without regular, annual appropriations from Congress to support the approximately 18,500 full-time employees, along with the seasonal workforce, and 279,000 volunteers who are dedicated to preservation and guiding the enjoyment of these special places. The Coalition appreciates the fact that this subcommittee rejected the large decreases in appropriations requested by the administration last fiscal year and provided funding of $3.37 billion so the Park Service can fulfill its preservation mandate as required by law.
Unfortunately, the administration seems to have missed the message Congress continues to send about the importance of national parks by again forwarding a budget recommendation for FY 2021 that is nothing more than a mirror image of the one that was rejected last fiscal year. The FY 2021 recommendation from the administration of $2.79 billion would result in a reduction of $581 million from current funding and the loss of 1,105 staff (FTEs). This recommendation demonstrates how little interest this administration has in protecting our national parks and the work that the National Park Service does across the country.
NPS annual appropriations must be spread thinner as Congress continues to increase the responsibilities given to the Park Service through the addition of new parks and programs. Park visitation remains high with an estimated 327.5 million visits in 2019. Although the figures are not yet available for 2019, the previous year’s visitation of 318 million visits to national parks had an economic impact of $20.2 billion in communities within 60 miles of a national park site. This level of visitation is clearly a reflection of the importance that these special places have in the mind of the American public. Effectively managing these demands is proving more and more challenging with funding that has not kept up with the Park Service’s costs.
It is fortunate that this subcommittee recognizes the need for adequate levels of annual appropriations to ensure the best possible visitor experience, to ensure that irreplaceable resources are protected, and to address the maintenance backlog. Even with the increased appropriations provided during the last three fiscal years by this subcommittee, parks are not yet able to achieve these basic purposes.
National parks still suffer from significant reductions in staffing over the past decade due to decreased annual appropriations over that time period and parks having to absorb fixed costs many of those years. To put this in perspective, appropriations for the National Park Service were $3.275 billion in FY 2009, a full ten years ago. The FY 2020 appropriation of $3.37 billion provided by this subcommittee was the first time the FY 2009 appropriation was exceeded in ten fiscal years. However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index, inflation has increased by 20.25% since 2009. Thus, the NPS would need $3.93 billion in appropriations this year just to stay even with inflation, or an additional $560 million in FY 2021.
While we commend the subcommittee for reversing the downward trend in appropriations, we strongly urge you to commit over each of the next three fiscal years to providing increased funding for the National Park Service so that staffing levels can be increased by at least 500 FTE each year.
We recognize the challenges the subcommittee faces in funding all of the requested needs; however, the national parks are not meeting the needs of the parks through all of their unfilled positions. Park visitors also are being shortchanged through this staffing shortage.
We are glad to see the administration’s budget recognizes the importance of providing fixed costs to NPS so that park and program office staffing levels do not suffer further erosion because they have to absorb these costs within their existing budgets. And while we welcome the inclusion of modest amounts of funding for newly established parks to ensure that protection and visitor services are established as soon as possible at these sites, the amount requested for new parks is insufficient to get them off the ground. Some new park units that were established more than five years ago only have one staff person for the entire park.
The coalition cannot support the department’s plan to consolidate all bureau ethics staff within one departmental Ethics Office, which would result in the transfer of $3.4 million for the ONPS budget of NPS to the department and a transfer of 15 FTEs from NPS to the departmental office. Our experience with previous consolidation efforts is that they fail because the people transferred are unable to provide the Park Service the services needed on a timely basis. This results in the Park Service having to rebuild the bureau’s lost capacity after a few years of unresponsiveness from the departmental office while never getting back the transferred funding.
As we recommend increased funding for the operations budget, we stress that part of this needs to be devoted to ensuring that the deferred maintenance backlog does not continue to increase. Further, funding remains inadequate to reduce the maintenance backlog in a meaningful way. With a backlog over $11.6 billion, more needs to be done. Half of this backlog is the result of thousands of miles of roads, bridges, and other supporting structures that are in dire need of repair. The National Park Service had previously estimated in FY 2017 that $400 million a year was needed to restore and maintain in good condition all of its highest-priority, non-transportation assets within ten years.
Unfortunately, the administration’s budget calls for reductions in many of the programs that help reduce this backlog. This includes a proposed reduction in the Park Service’s cyclic maintenance funding from $135.9 million in FY 2020 to $121 million in FY 2021. This funding is critical along with the repair/rehab funding, which the budget curiously recommends increasing from $153.6 million in FY 2020 to $188 million in FY 2021. These two sources of funding go hand in hand and both need to be maintained at adequate levels to keep the deferred maintenance backlog in check.
Additionally, the administration’s budget request for construction is only $192.6 million in FY 2021, which is a reduction from the $389.3 million available in the current fiscal year. The budget request also would reduce the Centennial Challenge from $15 million in FY 2020 to $0 in FY 2021. This challenge has been successful in leveraging non-federal dollars to help construct a number of projects that contribute toward the reduction in the maintenance backlog. We encourage the subcommittee to maintain at least the same funding as found in FY 2020 for the construction account and the Centennial Challenge in FY 2021.
Because annual appropriations are unlikely to increase sufficiently to eliminate the backlog, the National Park Service needs a dedicated source of funding for this purpose. Similar to the structure of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Historic Preservation Fund, the Coalition believes a dedicated source of revenue for a maintenance backlog fund is required, such as that being proposed in the Restore Our Parks Act. There will be no reduction in the backlog if such a revenue stream is unreliable from year to year. And this revenue must be in addition to current annual appropriations and not supplant annual funding. We are encouraged that both the House and Senate are moving forward with this legislation and we hope to see it enacted this year.
While operational needs are absolutely essential, NPS continues to have a large land acquisition backlog. There remain a number of privately owned lands within current park boundaries that have been identified in land protection plans. These properties represent the minimum interest necessary to protect resource values within the park. Unfortunately, this administration continues to place a low priority on federal land acquisition and has made no request for either federal land acquisition or the state grant program. The administration once again wants states to receive their grant funding from the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA) receipts estimated to be $117.2 million in FY 2021. The GOMESA funding was always intended to supplement the LWCF state grant funding provided by Congress, not to supplant it. We urge the subcommittee to provide funding for both the federal and state sides of LWCF so that important federal lands can continue to be protected and states can continue to receive its share of these dedicated funds. Further, we urge funding be provided for American Battlefield Protection Grants that the administration proposes to zero out.
In a similar manner, historic structures across the country are in danger of being lost because of inadequate appropriations from the Historic Preservation Fund (HPF). As required by law, $150 million a year goes into this fund; but appropriations have not kept pace with the need. The administration is proposing to cut the Historic Preservation Fund to $40.6 million in FY 2021 from the $118.6 million it is receiving in FY 2020. We recommend the subcommittee reject this reduction and appropriate the dedicated funds from HPF for their intended purposes.
Likewise, the NPS relies on partnerships with a number of groups and organizations, including educational institutions, to carry out cooperative agreements, technical assistance, and grant programs. Unfortunately, grant programs are constantly targeted for reductions or elimination during the annual budget request process, which contributes to uncertainty among many long-standing partners. This is particularly true for national heritage areas, whose funding has been zeroed out once again as it has been for many years in budgets by both Democratic and Republican administrations. This trend is regrettable, and we urge the subcommittee to once again fund national heritage areas so that the natural, historic, and cultural resources they protect can be appreciated and enjoyed for our citizens.
We commend the subcommittee for keeping its commitment to the national parks in your annual appropriations bill. We look forward to continuing to work with you during this process.
Submitted to both the House of Representatives and the Senate.