Statement of Philip A. Francis, Jr.
Chair of the Executive Council, Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
The Power of the Purse: A Review of Agency Spending Restrictions During a Shutdown
Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies
Committee on Appropriations
House of Representatives
February 6, 2019
Rep. McCollum, Rep. Joyce, and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today on behalf of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition) to share our views on the National Park Service’s use of fee money during the recent federal government shutdown.
I am a long-time member of the Coalition, including having served as the chair of the Executive Council for the past year. 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. Both Shenandoah and Yosemite National Parks charged entrance fees while all parks where I worked either collected campground fees or special use fees.
The Coalition is comprised of more than 1,600 members who collectively have more than 35,000 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 National Park Service and a number of other federal agencies have just experienced the longest shutdown in our country’s history. This shutdown had a number of consequences for the employees of the National Park Service who went without pay for 35 days, as well as impacts to the resources of the national parks, several of which suffered damage that has been documented widely in the national media.
Because of the visibility of our national parks, the administration took steps to mitigate any resulting bad publicity as shown in previous shutdowns and ordered parks to remain open and accessible – particularly with the high-visibility parks. This action led to stories of the destruction of iconic resources, widespread accumulation of trash and related habituation of wildlife, human waste on trails due to closed restrooms, vandalism of property, and destruction of habitat from off-road vehicle use.
Understanding the full extent of these impacts was obstructed by direction from the National Park Service that superintendents were not to talk to the press and to refer inquiries to the Washington office, where requests for interviews were refused. Further, under the condition that parks were being kept open, visitors were subjected to a degraded experience while often exposing themselves to health and safety risks.
These consequences were confirmed in a survey that coalition members undertook at 15 national park sites and at parks in the Washington, D.C. area in the last two weeks. The sites ranged from large national parks including Redwood and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks to smaller sites such as Fort Frederica National Monument and DeSoto National Memorial.
Our survey confirmed the consequences of keeping parks open during the shutdown that will continue to reverberate in the coming months. Regular park maintenance was not completed, which was particularly problematic and dangerous in several parks that experienced weather events. At the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park, roadways were closed due to snow and ice, and downed trees. At Point Reyes National Seashore, downed tree limbs on roads and trails were not cleared. Big Bend National Park lost a significant amount of ongoing volunteer support in maintaining recently planted native vegetation, and the removal of graffiti as well as fallen trees blocking trails.
In one of the most egregious acts of damage documented widely, a Joshua tree was struck and killed at the Ryan Campground at Joshua Tree National Park by an out-of-bounds vehicle. Our survey documented similar damage at Big Bend National Park, where there was serious damage to fragile desert vegetation and soils from illegal off-road activities. There also was damage to vegetation and water resources from illegal camping and trash accumulated at backcountry sites. Camping occurred in closed areas, despite signage and road closures.
At Point Reyes National Seashore, trash was spread out over parking areas and beaches. And at Yosemite National Park, trash, food scraps, and broken bottles were found in numerous locations, along with increased evidence of bear activity in picnic areas. A leaking diesel tank was documented at the park with no remedial planning available. Portable toilets had been vandalized and there was human waste visible. The Merced River dumping station was overflowing with frozen human waste on the ground.
At all parks surveyed, visitor services were severely reduced or unavailable. In addition, there were not enough NPS employees staffing the parks to ensure the safety of the resources or the visitors. At Point Reyes National Seashore, there should have been 70 volunteer wildlife docents in park areas with large concentrations of elephant seals, which can reach 16 feet in length and weigh over 6,000 lbs., to keep the public safe from these huge and aggressive animals. The park was forced to close the entire Drakes Beach area where the male elephant seals had come into the parking lot and threatened visitors. At Cape Cod National Seashore, the park’s only visitor center was closed, keeping out the usual steady stream of local residents, school children, and off-season visitors. This lack of access led to the heavily used public restrooms being closed, and as a result, public urination was observed as the coalition’s park survey was being conducted.
The coalition’s survey also documented the tremendous impact the shutdown had on NPS employees. Employees were fearful for visitor and resource safety during the shutdown. They were concerned about downstream implications for their park and visitors due to delayed seasonal hiring, and incomplete contracts. Further, several employees were forced to seek additional employment outside the NPS to pay bills, and some employees said they were forced to sell belongings or to turn off their hot water to save money. One national park reported that three young NPS employees were facing homelessness as they could not pay their rent.
Overall, employees lost respect and trust in the value of a career in public service, creating long-term implications for the NPS’s access to highly skilled and dedicated employees. Younger employees in particular are becoming disillusioned. A summary of our survey results is attached for your information.
As the damage to our parks became more visible, the Acting Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, issued a memorandum on January 5, 2019 ordering the parks to reopen using fees collected under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA). This memorandum, which lacked any discussion of the legal basis for taking the action, deviated from National Park Service Management Policies, as well as the practice used during previous shutdowns. The coalition believes the memorandum completely misstates the mission of the Park Service as found in its Organic Act “…is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” While there are two purposes mentioned, the first – to conserve and protect the parks – is unqualified, while the second – to provide for their enjoyment – has a significant qualification, i.e. to leave the parks unimpaired. Mr. Bernhardt’s memo overlooks this critical statutory distinction entirely. And as each day of the shutdown proved, while people were enjoying these resources, the resources were not left unimpaired for future generations.
Not only did the Bernhardt memo contradict the Park Service’s Contingency Plan that had been approved at the time of the shutdown, it also contradicted NPS management policies that make it clear how fees are to be used. In Management Policy 8.2.6, it states “…Although these fees may provide for the support of the overall management and operation of parks, as set forth in the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act and other relevant statutes, they are not intended to offset the operational costs associated with a park.” Additionally, Director’s Order 22 provides in Section 3j that “The expenditure of revenue collected under this program will provide high quality enhancements that directly impact the visiting public.” We do not believe that trash collection or restroom and road maintenance meet the intent of the law or NPS Management Policies and related directives.
Because the Bernhardt memorandum called for parks to use their fees “until such funds have reached a zero balance”, the impact on the parks of the loss of this revenue will be felt for months and years to come. Parks have used these fee balances to support critical visitor service projects that sometimes require them to save the fees for a couple of years before they have sufficient funds to begin work. Any projects that were in the pipeline through the use of these funds could now be delayed or even cancelled due to a lack of sufficient funding.
When I was superintendent of Blue Ridge Parkway, after paying first for the cost of fee collection, we were able to fund a variety of smaller campground improvement projects, such as campsite restoration, to ensure that visitors had a better experience. Nearly all of the available campground fees were plowed back into campground operations. The parkway also collected fees for special events along the parkway that required significant planning and oversight. Over 450 special events occurred along the 469 miles of the parkway. All of the fees collected were spent managing the special events programs, allowing for protection of visitors and parkway resources and preventing conflicts with traditional visitor uses, while at the same time providing an economic boost to local gateway communities.
From the time of the enactment of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act in 2004, Congress and the National Park Service have always intended park fees to be a supplement to appropriated funds, not to be a replacement for them. It appears this recent decision to use fee money to keep certain parks open was a public relations action intended to minimize the adverse publicity the administration was receiving as reports of park resource damage and increased threats to visitor health and safety continued to grow.
In all of the collective years and experiences managing and protecting parks by members of our Coalition, we have never witnessed such an assault on the integrity of park values and the safety of visitors to the parks throughout the country. We all remember past shutdowns; however, during every previous shutdown, parks were closed, and were much less vulnerable to damage to resources or harm to visitors. This past shutdown was the perfect storm of bad decision-making for political purposes, as well as the waste of valuable funds collected and targeted for other uses.
It is critical for you to assure that such an assault on our national parks never happens again. We are facing the very real possibility of another shutdown at the end of next week, and your leadership is needed to inform the administration that further damage to the parks and further harm to their dedicated federal employees will not be tolerated.
Further, we urge the committee to ask the National Park Service to account for the fee money expended by all parks to support basic operations, maintenance, and other activities during the shutdown in order to understand the scope of those lost funds. Further, we recommend that the committee request a list of park projects that will be delayed and or cancelled because of the expenditure of fee revenues.
We also ask Congress to reimburse the fee accounts that were required to expend their funds during the shutdown so that the list of deferred maintenance and other projects can still be achieved as originally intended under FLREA. This action is critical at a time when the National Park Service has been working hard to reduce that backlog through the use of FLREA funds, through the National Park Service Centennial Challenge Fund, and through annual appropriations provided by this subcommittee.
That concludes my statement. I would be glad to respond to any questions you might have.