Last week, The Montana Free Press reported that Senator Steve Daines took credit for Interior’s legally questionable decision to dip into National Park Service (NPS) entrance fees to fund daily operations and basic maintenance during the historic 35-day government shutdown without a plan to backfill the funds. According to the report, on January 5 Senator Daines “sent a letter to the Interior Department… pressuring the agency to keep the parks open and fund critical operations during the shutdown.” The story continued that Daines’s “office claims his letter resulted” in Interior’s decision to use entrance fees to do so.
“If Senator Daines wants to brag that he pushed Interior to use legally questionable funding sources to keep national parks open during the government shutdown, he needs to take responsibility for the damage America’s national parks incurred, and provide a plan that will make our parks whole again,” said Chris Saeger, Executive Director of Western Values Project. “We encourage Congress to get to the bottom of whether it was legal for entrance fees to be used in this way, and find out exactly how much the shutdown cost taxpayers in squandered fees and lost revenue.”
Interior’s legally dubious decision to use NPS entrance fees to clean restrooms, haul trash, patrol the parks, and open areas that had been shut during the government shutdown has been widely criticized, as park fees are supposed to support visitor services, not daily operations and basic maintenance. Unlike the 2013 shutdown, where national parks were kept closed, in this shutdown national parks were left open but staffed with skeleton crews. As a result, many parks suffered from what may be irreversible damage. As of now, it’s not clear whether Senator Daines or Interior have a plan to restore entrance fees that were used during the shutdown.
In addition to the funding needed to fix the damage done to parks and untallied entrance fees used for basic operations during the historic 35-day shutdown, the National Park Service is estimating that between $10 and $11 million in entrance fee revenue was lost during the shutdown. Coupled with an estimated $11.6 billion in maintenance backlog, America’s national parks are facing many difficult fiscal challenges in the year ahead.
Senator Daines’s push to squander entrance fees isn’t the only time he recently hurt public lands. Last summer, he voted to slash funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) just hours after singing the praises of the program.
Tomorrow, the House Appropriations Committee’s Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee will hold a hearing titled, “The Power of the Purse: A Review of Agency Spending Restrictions During a Shutdown” which will review how federal agencies can spend money during a shutdown. In particular, the hearing will look at Interior’s decision to use visitor fee revenues to keep sites open during the partial government shutdown.