Budget hearing: NPS addresses maintenance backlog

By Dani Dagan

©Jerry and Pat Donaho

As the appropriations season for fiscal year (FY) 2017 ramps up in Washington, Congressional subcommittees in both the House and Senate are holding hearings to discuss and dissect the president’s budget request. Every year the president submits a budget request to Congress outlining the federal government’s funding needs for the upcoming FY, which starts on Oct. 1. Congress must then approve this budget through 12 separate appropriations bills, each developed by a specific appropriations subcommittee.

On Wednesday, March 16, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies held a hearing to discuss NPS’ FY 2017 budget request. With $11 million in maintenance backlogs despite growing popularity, National Parks Service Director Jon Jarvis sat before Congress to request an increase in funds.

Maintenance costs

Even with NPS’ strong public and philanthropic support, overdue infrastructure repairs remain a serious issue. Earlier this month, NPS announced that the Memorial Bridge, which runs across the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., could be closed to vehicle traffic in five years without major work – repairs that ring in at about $250 million. Jarvis told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies that low priority assets may be torn down in order to remove them from the books.

Jarvis pitched the idea of an NPS endowment fund – an idea that was met with agreement and enthusiasm. Subcommittee chair Ken Calvert (R-CA) called NPS “one of the most popular government agencies in the United States government,” expressing certainty that they can bring in ample donor funding. Nonetheless, Jarvis maintained that sufficient government appropriations are necessary for the Service to continue chipping away at their backlogs.

Maintenance backlogs gave Subcommittee members pause when considering land acquisition. At the hearing, Mark Amodei (R-NV) questioned the rationale behind expanding the National Park Service through the Land and Water Conservation Fund under these conditions. Jarvis assured them that the Service does not acquire land unless there are partners “willing to pony up,” underlining NPS’ dependence on philanthropic donations.

The president’s budget includes a request for a permanent $300 million annual fund for addressing NPS maintenance needs.

Meanwhile, park fees were increased last year for the first time since 2008, bringing in about $45 million last year – a sum that was mostly directed toward maintenance. Additionally, the 5-year transportation bill passed by Congress allocates $268 million toward NPS in FY 2016, an annual allocation that will grow to $300 million in FY 2020.

Regarding the transportation bill, Jarvis said “it’s not enough, but it’s a pretty good start.”

Overcrowding

NPS saw a record visitor high in 2015, with an impressive total of 307 million visits. Subcommittee members commended NPS on the success of their outreach and promotional campaigns. The Service’s Find Your Park campaign is now recognizable to one out of four young adults, according to Jarvis, and its centennial campaign has already collected over $200 million of its $350 million goal.

At the same time, Subcommittee members voiced concerns regarding overcrowding. Representative Chris Stewart (R-UT) said that access to Utah’s parks can be an issue, stating that the magic of the parks is “diminished when people feel like they spend half of their day in the parking lot.”

Increased public engagement with National Parks creates potential challenges for wildlife managers, who must balance visitor experiences with preserving natural resources.

Jarvis told the Subcommittee that a better Web system is in the works so that visitors can better plan their trips. NPS plans on launching a new website in April, during National Parks Week. “Technology is going to be key in this, and better trip planning,” said Jarvis. He also reminded the Subcommittee that lands managed by other agencies often provide comparable visitor experiences, noting that their outreach campaign is called “Find Your Park,” not “Find Your National Park.”

Dani Dagan is a policy intern at The Wildlife Society as part of the Government Affairs & Partnership program.

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