Statement for the Record
Michael B. Murray
Chair of the Executive Council, Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
Committee on Appropriations
Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies
United States Senate
FY 2024 Appropriations for the National Park Service, Department of the Interior
April 10, 2023
Chairman Merkley, Ranking Member Murkowski, and members of the Subcommittee, I am Michael B. (Mike) Murray, Chair of the Executive Council of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition). The Coalition is a non-profit organization composed of more than 2,400 retired, former, and current employees of the National Park Service (NPS) who collectively have over 40,000 years of experience managing and protecting our national parks. The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System. We appreciate the opportunity to present this statement for the record on the FY 2024 Appropriations for the NPS, our national parks, and their partnership grant and assistance programs.
The Coalition was pleased to see the president request an increase in the FY 2024 NPS discretionary budget with his recommendation of a total of $3.8 billion. This represents over a $289 million increase for the NPS from the FY 2023 enacted level.
For years, our national parks have been trying to manage dramatically increasing visitation with inadequate operating budgets and staff reductions in parks, program offices, as well as regional and central offices. These reductions resulted in fewer programs, shortened hours of operations, and reduced capacity in the parks to address park maintenance issues and visitor safety. In program offices, reduced staff resulted in less support for parks and programs. Additionally, concerns about adequate funding have led to low staff morale.
The rapid growth in visitation and corresponding decreases in park funding and staffing are resulting in a decline in the quality of visitor experience, the degradation of natural and cultural resources, growing traffic and parking issues as well as crowding, along with increasing safety and public health concerns for both visitors and employees. One major park superintendent told the Coalition that he/she has never been so concerned for the future of the park and for park staff. As just one example, the park’s visitation has increased by 90 percent since 2010, yet its funding has declined by 12 percent. Meeting these complex challenges will be difficult, but failing to adequately address these needs equates to failing at the NPS mission of preserving our nation’s natural and cultural heritage while providing for a quality visitor use experience. Park funding and staffing must be increased and additional government housing must be provided or these problems will only grow worse according to numerous park managers.
The actions authorized in the past few years through the Great American Outdoors (GAOA) and Inflation Reduction Acts begin to address the financial shortfalls that the NPS has been experiencing. The concern is that many of these recently appropriated funds are temporary and/or project specific. Base increases that are permanent are needed to ensure that park and program fixed costs are addressed and that staffing is restored to previous levels or increased levels so that parks and programs can address the needs and impacts that increased visitation has on both the visitor experience and safety and protection of park resources. Rebuilding park, program, and regional and central office staff will also address the agency’s low employee morale concerns as it will ensure that staff are not asked continually to do more with fewer staff resources.
The president’s FY 2024 budget is a good step forward toward addressing important needs of the NPS. The Coalition provides the following recommendations for these funds in the coming fiscal year:
1) Continuing to Enhance and Build Operational Capacity (ONPS). The top priority for the Coalition this year is a focus on the NPS employees and the services they provide for park visitors. The president’s budget recommends an additional $266.3 million in park operations and their support services. The budget increases provided in the ONPS and other accounts of the NPS would result in filling over 1,300 positions that were lost over the past decade. This, in turn, would help ensure that all parks, including the small and medium-sized parks, which rely on services provided by regional and Washington, D.C., program offices, would benefit.
To ensure park, regional, and program offices do not go backwards, it is imperative that fixed costs are appropriated first. The budget recommends a total of $124.9 million for fixed costs, which the Coalition strongly supports. Additionally, the budget recommends the proposed increased funding focus on staffing for new parks as well as those parks experiencing increased visitation. The Coalition agrees with these priorities to help ensure a quality visitor experience and to address the employee workload at parks where visitation continues to grow from year to year.
This proposed budget builds on Congress’ action in the current year’s appropriation that provided important increases for the preservation of the natural resources entrusted to the care of the NPS. The Coalition supported last year’s appropriations bill and agrees with the continued focus in the FY 2024 recommendations in order to address climate change and other natural resource protection programs.
As the Coalition noted last year, equally important for the subcommittee is doing something to replace the loss of almost 30 percent of cultural resource management positions in our national parks, regional, and program offices. Many cultural resources, including historic buildings, museum objects, and archaeological sites, are unmaintained, severely threatened, or degraded. The FY 2024 budget recommendations propose an additional $18.8 million to support programs to address cultural resource protection, address racial equity, and to support underserved communities.
In the past, cultural resource protection often has been a lower priority among the needs of the NPS, and we are aware it is difficult for the subcommittee to ensure additional funding is used by the parks for cultural resource protection when parks find their budgets stretched. We recommend the subcommittee include report language to accompany the FY 2024 bill that directs the NPS to provide guidance to the parks on using funding equitably among natural and cultural resource protection programs and to provide an accounting of these funds to the House and Senate committees during FY 2024.
Additionally, the Coalition expresses its continued support for the NPS proposal to extend the period of availability of funding in the ONPS account to two years, which will allow more efficient management of resources and permit adjustment for disruptions that occur within the fiscal year. This request is consistent with that provided to other bureaus within the Department of the Interior.
2) National Recreation and Preservation (NR&P). Within the president’s budget, various programs such as the National Register of Historic Places, Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance, and several grant programs including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation, Japanese American Confinement Sites, and National Heritage Areas, are funded under this account.
The Coalition notes that these programs are critical to the partnership work of the NPS, and they need adequate staff to fulfill their partnership responsibilities in a timely manner, which has been a critical area of concern in recent years. The president’s budget recommends an additional $2.7 million in FY 2024 for the various programs covered under this account to assist in effective administration of these programs, which the Coalition strongly supports.
3) Construction. The president’s budget recommends $286.6 million for the Construction account, which is an increase of $46.8 million over the FY 2023 enacted level. The Coalition supports this funding as a needed partner to the mandatory funding provided by the GAOA. The NPS construction funding helps to ensure cyclic maintenance and repair/rehab activities are carried out so that the backlog of NPS maintenance does not continue to grow.
Of particular importance to the Coalition is funding to address the NPS’ park housing needs. The FY 2024 budget recommends building on last year’s momentum by increasing the housing request to $14.9 million, an additional $7 million over the current year’s enacted level. The Coalition strongly supports this proposed increase to assist the parks in attracting and retaining the needed permanent and seasonal staffing who can live in affordable housing in many areas where such housing options are either unavailable or unaffordable by staff living on government salaries.
4) Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Most national parks have private lands within their Congressionally established boundaries. To fully protect the park’s natural and cultural resources, these inholdings must be acquired. Acquiring these parcels is not expanding parks, but rather completing them, making management of the parks more efficient and saving money as well as staff time that is otherwise spent dealing with land use conflicts and threats of inappropriate use or resource damage.
The NPS officially estimates $2 billion is needed to acquire the private inholdings within park boundaries. Ever since the passage of the GAOA, the share the NPS has received for specific federal LWCF acquisitions in any one year has hovered just slightly over $60 million. This level of funding makes it difficult to even begin to address the backlog or to have sufficient funds available to acquire key parcels when opportunities quickly arise.
The president’s request for the federal land acquisition program of the NPS is $104.3 million of which $61.8 million is for specific acquisitions. The NPS should be allocated a more proportionate share of the LWCF to address its backlog. Additionally, the number of emergencies, hardships, and unexpected situations that occur each year cannot be adequately addressed in a timely manner with the $5 million requested. This amount should be increased to at least $10 million to ensure funding is available to meet these opportunities as they come about.
5) Other programs. We end our statement by noting our support for the administration’s efforts and associated funding to improve coordination with Tribal nations, for its request for the critical work of the Historic Preservation Fund to preserve historically and culturally significant sites and provide competitive grants to non-Federal entities, and for the $15 million in matching funding for the Centennial Challenge program, which benefits several parks within the system.
Thank you for consideration of our request. We look forward to continuing to work with you during the consideration of the FY 2024 Interior appropriations bill.