Originally published in and reprinted with permission of Common Dreams, August 10, 2023.
Is Congress Too Dysfunctional to Fund the National Parks?
The stark difference between the House and Senate versions of a funding measure have some observers speculating that the upcoming impasse may be unresolvable, leading to yet another full or partial government shutdown.
On a partisan 33-27 vote, the House Appropriations Committee has passed a spending bill that will cause the National Park Service to shed more than 1,000 staff positions as it copes with the return of record-breaking crowds.
If it stands, this 12.5% cut in operating funds would reverse Biden administration efforts to stem the overall decline in Park Service staffing. Between 2010 and 2020, the agency shrank by nearly 30%, losing around 6,000 net employees.
During this period, the ranks of permanent law enforcement rangers also fell substantially while those of seasonal law enforcement rangers deployed during peak seasons have dropped even more. Meanwhile, all these new visitors are getting into more trouble, like trying to take selfies with bison—and getting lost. In just the past six years, there has been explosive growth in park search and rescue operations, with such incidents more than tripling.
However, the House’s impending actions are not based on any workload analyses or targeted to safeguard visitor services. In fact, some riders tacked onto the bill make the effects of overcrowding worse, such as forbidding Glacier National Park from continuing its car reservation system to reduce traffic jams in one of the many popular parks being loved to death.
This Glacier rider is the work of former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has returned to the House of Representatives after a close election to again represent Montana. Arguably, Zinke should have learned something about Park Service problems and come prepared to offer solutions—but no such luck.
Adding further insult to this impending injury are a posse of other nasty riders stapled into this funding measure, such as stripping any remaining endangered species protections from lower-48 grizzlies and gray wolves, as well as park-specific nuggets, such as
- Impeding any bans on lead ammunition or fishing tackle on federal lands;
- Reinstating mineral leases near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness; and
- Green-lighting oil and gas development within Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve.
Meanwhile, the Senate version of this 2024 fiscal year spending bill does not contain big cuts or any of these nasty riders. The stark difference between the House and Senate versions of this funding measure have some observers (including me) speculating that the upcoming impasse may be unresolvable, leading to yet another full or partial government shutdown when the current fiscal year funding runs out at the end of the federal fiscal year next month.
Recently, Fitch Ratings cut the U.S. debt by one notch, from AAA to AA+, partly in response to the brinksmanship in how the federal government handled the debt crisis. This appears to be a recognition by the markets of the growing governance concerns with the current Congress. It apparently has reached the point where we can no longer even manage parks.
In past decades, America’s best idea was one of the few domestic programs enjoying bipartisan support. Ironically, this former font of consensus may have morphed into the source for a new paralyzing partisan divide.