As Shutdown Looms, Democrats Promote National Parks

Bill marking National Park Service centennial comes weeks before the parks could be shuttered.

As Con­gress hurtles to­ward the gov­ern­ment fund­ing dead­line with no solu­tion in sight, House Demo­crats are draw­ing more at­ten­tion to the ul­ti­mate shut­down sym­bol—na­tion­al parks.

Rep. Raul Gri­jalva is set to in­tro­duce Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion-backed le­gis­la­tion on Fri­day in­ten­ded to mark the 100th an­niversary of the Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice next year and boost spend­ing across the sys­tem.

“This bill will give our great pub­lic-lands sys­tem the sa­lute it de­serves and make sure the Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice has what it needs to con­tin­ue pre­serving the most beau­ti­ful parts of the United States in­to the fu­ture,” said Gri­jalva, the rank­ing mem­ber of the House Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee.

But the tim­ing of the bill’s in­tro­duc­tion—less than two weeks be­fore gov­ern­ing fund­ing is set to ex­pire—also serves to high­light the pop­ular­ity of the NPS be­fore their gates could be shuttered, if Con­gress shuts down the gov­ern­ment as part of a dis­pute over Planned Par­ent­hood fund­ing. Con­ser­vat­ives have said they won’t ac­cept a spend­ing bill that doesn’t cut fund­ing for the con­tro­ver­sial group, while Demo­crats and the White House said they wouldn’t sup­port the cuts.

Lead­er­ship in both cham­bers say they’re de­term­ined to avoid a shut­down but don’t yet have a plan to do so. And that could mean that for the second time in three years, the na­tion’s parks could shut their gates.

When a stan­doff between Re­pub­lic­ans and the White House over health care spend­ing shut down the gov­ern­ment for 16 days in Oc­to­ber 2013, shuttered na­tion­al parks be­came one of the most po­tent sym­bols and polit­ic­al hot pota­toes. Wed­dings on na­tion­al land had to be can­celed, va­ca­tions were post­poned, and vet­er­ans were turned away from the World War II Me­mori­al in Wash­ing­ton.

All told, the NPS es­tim­ated that the eco­nom­ic hit of the parks’ clos­ure was more than $414 mil­lion, but Re­pub­lic­ans also took a beat­ing polit­ic­ally.

West­ern Re­pub­lic­ans have sought to blunt the im­pact of an­oth­er shut­down with a bill that would keep parks open, coupled with a sep­ar­ate bill that would re­pay states for losses dur­ing a shut­down. (Six states shelled out around $3.6 mil­lion to re­open their parks as tour­ists were turned away from the gates.) The lat­ter bill passed out of the Sen­ate En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee, but the “Pub­lic Ac­cess to Pub­lic Land Guar­an­tee Act” has not moved in this Con­gress.

Speak­ing to re­port­ers earli­er this week, In­teri­or Sec­ret­ary Sally Jew­ell said her agency was already get­ting ready for fund­ing to dry up again, ex­press­ing frus­tra­tion that it could hap­pen for the second time in her term and so close to the 100th an­niversary.

“We pro­foundly hope there is no gov­ern­ment shut­down. That is the basis on which we’re op­er­at­ing,” said Jew­ell at an event hos­ted by The Chris­ti­an Sci­ence Mon­it­or. But, she ad­ded, “We have to do shut­down plan­ning. Un­for­tu­nately, we’re get­ting pretty good at that.”

Gri­jalva’s bill, which has five Demo­crat­ic co-spon­sors, would es­tab­lish a spe­cial fund, matched by private dona­tions, to fund in­fra­struc­ture im­prove­ments, while also re­quir­ing an ap­pro­pri­ation of $300 mil­lion to the NPS con­struc­tion ac­count for fisc­al years 2016 to 2018. The bill would also es­tab­lish a $100 mil­lion an­nu­al fund for land man­age­ment, boost spend­ing on edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams, and lift an ap­pro­pri­ations cap for an NPS vo­lun­teer pro­gram.

The White House, which pro­posed the centen­ni­al pro­gram, said it would “en­sure that our na­tion­al parks, fa­cil­it­ies, and edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams are of the highest qual­ity.”

It would also help to cor­rect a budget short­fall that has plagued the NPS: Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al Parks Con­ser­va­tion As­so­ci­ation, na­tion­al parks are short by more than a half-bil­li­on dol­lars each year, for­cing cut­backs on park rangers, vis­it­ing hours, and main­ten­ance.

“So many Amer­ic­ans place enorm­ous value on the abil­ity to vis­it our na­tion­al parks, and our na­tion points to them with pride, which is why a sub­stan­tial fed­er­al in­vest­ment is es­sen­tial to main­tain and pre­serve them,” said Rep. Niki Tson­gas, a co-spon­sor of the bill. “Ad­equately fund­ing our na­tion­al parks, es­pe­cially dur­ing the centen­ni­al, is a smart, long-term in­vest­ment to pre­serve sites and in­volve and ex­cite a new gen­er­a­tion.”

Source: National Journal