What We Know About the State of the National Parks Budget

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, left, and Lucas St. Clair look out over the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument while on a tour of the monument on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. Gregory Rec / Portland Press Herald / Getty Images

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke offered new insights into how the National Park Service may look after budget cuts at the Western Governors’ Association meeting in Whitefish, Montana, late last month. His priorities seemed to be a common refrain for the Trump administration’s federal budget outlook: cutting waste and improving efficiency through a $1.6 billion cut to the Interior Department — a 12% slash to last year’s budget. Zinke also testified before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources last month to defend the proposed budget. But opponents are worried the cuts may have sweeping implications for how national park services will be run and expect the worst for park maintenance and visitor experience at a time when park visitation is steadily increasing. The budget wouldn’t go into effect until 2018 and still requires congressional approval, but here’s what we know based on the new updates so far:

1. Secretary Zinke’s focus is on improving the front line. By this he means there are too many people in higher-level office jobs, detracting resources from park workers spending time on the ground. This tactic is reportedly influenced by Zinke’s time as a Navy Seal, inspired by the joint command strategies of the military. However the front line approach doesn’t mean there will be more park employees. In fact, nearly 90% of national parks would reduce their current staffing levels under the proposed budget. As John Garder, an official at the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, said previously, “The budget is inconsistent with the statement that resources are being provided for the front line… These aren’t just bureaucrats, these are people that
provide important services.”

2. A number of National Monuments are still under reviewAfter proposing a size reduction to Bears Ears National Monument in Utah last month, it was uncertain what Zinke’s reaction would be to his recent visit to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine. Though in a statement to the press Zinke indicated that a reduction to Katahdin was unlikely, noting that it is significantly smaller than Bears Ears as is. Both monuments were designated by President Obama, though Secretary Zinke has said federal control of lands hurts local economies by cutting the areas to new energy development, and President Trump has called such designations “a massive federal land grab”. This stands in line with Zinke’s encouragement of “public-private partnerships” in national park land. 

3. Zinke wants to extract resources from public lands and offshore. He lamented the decrease in offshore revenue in his testimony before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources last month, recalling the $18 billion the Interior collected for offshore extraction in 2008, compared to $2.6 billion last year. Although this comparison does not take into account the fall in oil prices over that period. Still Zinke sees this as the best strategy to tackle the nearly $12 billion backlog in national park maintenance the department faces. Nada Culver of The Wilderness Society responded with harsh criticism in a release: “Secretary Zinke’s call for energy dominance is a rhetorical ploy to justify turning over as much of our publicly owned assets to special interests in the oil, gas and coal industries as possible.”

4. Senate testimony revealed a breakdown of budget cut specifics. National parks would lose $378 million in the 2018 fiscal budget, which Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) explained during the hearing would cut more than 1,000 full-time national parks employees (a portion of the 4,000 total Interior Department jobs to be cut in 2018). Other programs the department is attempting to drastically scale back include a $370 million cut to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a $163 million cut to the U.S. Geological Survey, and a $120 million cut to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) questioned how cuts to Indian Affairs would affect tribal sovereignty, to which Zinke responded: “This is what a balanced budget looks like.”

5. Public commenting about the cuts will be permitted. A notice will be posted giving instructions for commenting through www.regulations.gov, although specifics on how or when this will be implemented have not been released by the department. A rundown on the regulatory burdens the budget cuts are attempting to address are available on the Department of Interior website. Some of the burdens listed include regulations that “are outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective” and “impose costs that exceed benefits.”