National park advocates worried about budget blueprint cuts

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The shoreline of Lake McDonald in Montana's Glacier National Park.
The shoreline of Lake McDonald in Montana's Glacier National Park.

Following a centennial year that saw more than 330 million people descend on the country's national parks and pushed the National Park Service (NPS) resources to its limit, the parks system is now at risk of seeing much-needed funding and upkeep slashed under President Trump's budget blueprint.

"The challenge is, and has always been, funding these sites adequately to keep up with the demands placed on them," said Dan Austin, president of Austin Adventures, a tour operator that specializes in national park travel. "These budget cuts come at a time where the parks are seeing record crowds, and yet funding has been falling short for decades."

Last month, the Trump administration released a budget blueprint that would cut nearly 12% from the annual budget of the Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service, as well as 31% of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) budget, an agency whose funding also impacts various park projects.

As a result, park advocates are sounding the alarm.

Maureen Finnerty, chairwoman of the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, said in a statement, "Never before have cuts of this magnitude been made. These cuts are extreme and will result in the degradation of park resources owned by all Americans."

According to the NPS, the hundreds of millions of visitors to the national parks injected $32 billion into the U.S. economy in 2015 and supported 295,000 jobs. Travel companies that rely on that revenue also rely on federal funding to help properly maintain the open land, wildlife and infrastructure that attract and accommodate all those visitors.

"These cuts will impact economies of local communities and businesses as parks will be forced to close facilities and shorten visitor seasons," Finnerty said. "For every dollar spent on park operations, more than $10 is returned to local communities, which provides critical jobs for thousands of Americans."

The country's 410 national park entities (which include national parks, monuments, battlefields, coastlines and recreation areas) welcomed a record-breaking 330.9 million visitors in 2016, up from 307.2 million in 2015, according to the NPS. The parks have been gaining in popularity in recent years for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from all the buzz and marketing surrounding last year's centennial to a desire for some U.S. travelers to explore destinations closer to home.

The result has been a crush on the most popular parks, such as Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Glacier and Yellowstone.

Austin cited Yellowstone as a prime example of a national park being pushed to its limit, having welcomed 42.5 million visitors last year.

"Many of the properties are well over 100 years old," Austin said. "Picture keeping up a property that is 100-plus years old with millions of guests walking through and/or staying each year, adding some of the harshest weather in the country."

Increasingly, private companies such as Xanterra Parks & Resorts, parent company of Austin Adventures and the largest concessionaire in the parks system, have been stepping up to fill in some of the investment gaps. Xanterra operates lodges, restaurants and concessions in nine national parks, including Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Zion and Glacier, as well as in seven state parks throughout the country.

Last year, Betsy O'Rourke, vice president of sales and marketing for Xanterra, voiced her concern that the popularity of the parks could compromise their future if steps were not taken to mitigate the impact of visitors while at the same time ensuring a positive guest experience.

John Garder, director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association, said, "Our parks face many challenges that require more funding, not less. Agencies like the National Park Service and EPA cannot take care of our treasured landscapes and historical landmarks with further cuts to what are already shoestring budgets."

Despite a barrage of concern from champions of the parks, even watchdog groups admitted that the precise fallout for the parks remains unclear. For starters, the budget did not specify how much of the 12% Interior Department cut would be pulled from the parks. Additionally, the budget did provide for greater funding to address a $12 billion deferred parks maintenance backlog.

In a statement, U.S. secretary of the interior Ryan Zinke said, "America's public lands are our national treasures, and the president's budget sends a strong signal that we will protect and responsibly manage these vast areas of our country."

The proposed belt-tightening comes at a time when one of the newest entrants into the national park system is under threat for political reasons. Utah's Bears Ears National Monument, a 1.3 million-acre site, was designated as a national monument by President Obama toward the end of his presidency.

In response, the Republican-controlled legislature in February passed a resolution, signed by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, petitioning President Trump to rescind the designation. The administration has not acted on the request.

Further complicating the issue, the Utah Dine Bikeyah, a coalition of Native American tribes that support the monument, said that if Trump rescinds the designation, the tribes will sue.

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