Interior fee use during shutdown was against the law, GAO says

The Government Accountability Office determined that the Department of the Interior broke the law when it used entry fees to keep national parks open during the government shutdown earlier this year.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt ordered some national parks to stay open or reopen during the partial government shutdown in January. The funding for doing so came from entrance fees collected by the parks. According to the GAO, an independent agency that works for Congress, such an action violates the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits federal agencies from spending money not authorized by Congress.

“Interior disregarded not only the laws themselves but also the congressional prerogatives that underlie them,” says the legal opinion. “Instead of carrying out the law, Interior improperly imposed its own will.”

The report, which came at the request of several members of Congress, indicated the steps Interior must take to correct the violation. It must adjust its accounts, “report the violation, explain the correction, identify officials responsible for the violating obligations, and explain actions taken to preclude such violations in the future.”

National park entry fees are collected under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act and are to be used for maintenance and future projects, rather than day-today operations expenses at parks.

Secretary Bernhardt said at the time that the use of FLREA funds for operational costs was legal, and Interior officials have maintained their argument. In response to the GAO finding, Interior spokesperson Melissa Brown said, “It’s obvious that the GAO reached their conclusion prematurely and without regard for all of the facts. We completely disagree with the GAO’s erroneous opinion regarding our appropriate and lawful use of FLREA funds. The department acted well within its legal authority to clean up restrooms and pick up trash so the American people could enjoy their national parks,” according to E&E News.

The report does not speak to the use of entry fees or other funds by the department at national wildlife refuges. During the shutdown, Interior used previously appropriated funds and recreational fee dollars to partially re-staff some National Wildlife Refuges. The Service also deployed these funds to allow it to address large construction projects, important fire safety related tasks and the drafting of time-sensitive hunting and fishing regulations.

The current fiscal year ends Sept. 30, and Congressional appropriators are not likely to pass next year’s funding bills by that deadline, risking another government shutdown. Lawmakers have begun discussing using a continuing resolution to extend current spending levels until appropriations can be completed.

Header Image: After having to close all parks during the government shutdown, Interior used fee money to reopen some parks, a move GAO now says was illegal. ©NPCA