National Park Traveler Logo


Debt Ceiling Agreement Stands To Be Damaging To National Park Service

By Kurt Repanshek – June 1st, 2023

Proposed legislation to lift the nation’s debt ceiling stands to be damaging to the National Park Service if passed in its current form, according to a budget analyst for the National Parks Conservation Association.

The agreement could cost the Park Service hundreds of rangers beginning in Fiscal 2024, which arrives this coming October 1, lead to a reduction in visitor services, and research in the parks also could be impacted, as well as maintenance issues.

“We’ve seen in the past that flat funding can lead to the loss of dozens or even hundreds of park rangers and other personnel,” John Garder, NPCA’s senior director for budget and appropriations, said Thursday during a call.

Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of NPCA, said in a release that the legislation in its current form “could undermine the progress made from last year’s bipartisan investments and put our parks deeper into the financial hole they’ve been trying to dig out of for over a decade. It’s unrealistic to expect our national parks to meet their mission to protect park resources and safely welcome millions of visitors with even less money and less staff.”

At the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, chair Mike Murray said impacts would be felt across the National Park System.

“We recognize the critical need for Congress to pass legislation to raise the debt ceiling, and appreciate the necessity of compromise. However, there is no question that flat funding will have negative impacts on the National Park System, visitor safety and experience, and the morale and well-being of NPS employees,” he said in an email. “Our national parks need more funding than they are currently receiving, especially for staffing and operations. Under the proposed spending cap, parks will have to absorb fixed costs, which will be a step backward from refilling staff positions lost over the past decade.”

The Park Service’s fixed costs — salary, benefits, utilities — represent about 3.6 percent of the agency’s roughly $3.5 billion budget, and dialing back some funding for FY24 and then holding agency budget’s to just a 1 percent increase in FY25 as the legislation before the Senate would do would translate into a budget cut for the agency, NPCA’s Garder said.

“So whatever their budget … just to stay even, they’re going to need a 3.6 percent increase,” said Garder. “The last estimate of the Park Service’s uncontrollable costs was $125 million. If they don’t get that much, they are going to fall further behind. Superintendents, as a rule when they are given a flat budget, can’t meet their overhead costs and so have to make difficult decisions,” such as not filling vacancies on their staff, reducing the number of seasonal rangers they hire, scaling back visitor services in general.

Restraining the agency’s fiscal budget increases to just 1 percent would translate into roughly $35 million, far below the fixed costs that need to be met.

Back in FY19, said Garder, the agency’s budget increase was just 1 percent over FY18, and their full-time equivalent positions went down from 19,032 to 18,544—a loss of just under 500 rangers. And at the time, inflation and the cost of materials for construction was below today’s conditions, he noted.

Earlier this year President Biden called for a $3.8 billion FY24 budget for the Park Service, an increase of roughly $289 million, or an 8 percent increase. That request demonstrates how many different roles the Park Service plays. For instance, it includes funding for:

  • Advancing racial equity
  • Supporting underserved communities
  • Dealing with climate change in the National Park System
  • Conserving natural resources
  • Supporting science in the parks
  • Addressing electric vehicle charging needs
  • Updating the Park Service’s IT systems
  • Preserving historic sites
  • Cleaning up abandoned mine sites

As proposed the budget would support total staffing of 20,797 full-time equivalent positions, an increase of 1,369 from current levels.

Park Service Director Chuck Sams at the time said such an increase would fund “investments essential for the NPS’s continued success in its second century” and ensure that the agency would have the resources necessary to remain “committed to the daily mission of ensuring that all Americans can access, enjoy, and learn in every national park.”

Going forward, how the agreement approved by Biden impacts the Park Service’s ability to help address employee housing by building new or rehabilitating existing housing, prepare climate vulnerability assessments to improve park resiliency, and address hazard mitigation at abandoned mineral land sites remains to be seen.

NPCA officials also took time to criticize language in the bill insisted upon by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, to legislatively approve all the remaining permits needed for completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile-long high-pressure line to send natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia.

“Fast-tracking a natural gas pipeline that would have serious negative impacts on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail is not the way to clear a path forward on the debt ceiling talks,” said Pamela Goddard, NPCA’s Mid-Atlantic Region senior program director. “It would be short-sighted and irresponsible to try to approve the Mountain Valley Pipeline without following the proper permitting processes as defined by our bedrock environmental laws. Congress must strike this provision from the bill and continue bipartisan talks on the national debt without sacrificing the public lands that are ours to share.”