The Politics of Parks

national parks. Photos © iStockphotoLovers of our national parks were distressed to find out this past February that the Obama administration was proposing a third straight year of cuts to crucial parts of the National Park Service (NPS) budget. The result will likely be a net reduction of some 218 full-time rangers and other staff, as well as reduced visitor hours and services and decreased resource stewardship. And the proposed budget slashes spending on construction projects in national parks by a third from the previous year, funding only high priority maintenance projects critical to visitor and employee health and safety.

Without support from the White House and Congress, the NPS cannot begin to chip away at its more than $10 billion maintenance backlog. Whether or not this turnaround happens in the near-term will likely depend on two major factors: who gets elected to the White House later this year; and whether or not the economy starts to rebound. Given the utter silence on the issue of parks protection from the Republican candidates thus far and the incentive for a second-term president to leave a lasting legacy, parks lovers are pegging their hopes on Obama this November.

Obama has shown some commitment to the parks, opting to continue funding a program started two years prior by a legacy focused George W. Bush to bolster Park Service budgets over a decade leading up to the system’s 2016 centennial. And Obama channeled even more money into Park Service coffers in 2009 as part of the economic stimulus package. But the following year the centennial funding was cut due to economic constraints as the last of the stimulus funding dwindled—and the Park Service has gotten short shrift ever since.

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“We’re now looking at cuts to parks for the third year in a row,” says Craig Obey, senior vice president for government affairs at the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association NPCA. He adds that the same thing happened during the middle years of George W. Bush’s presidency. “We were at a crisis point where the parks were about $750 million short every year of what they needed,” Obey says. But in 2006, he continues, the Bush administration “woke up and launched a program to restore those parks budgets that had been eroding and eroding and eroding.”

It’s the Economy

Obey and his colleagues are hoping for a similar turnaround from a second-term Obama administration. “Presidents tend to think about their legacy as they near the end of their terms,” says Obey, adding that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made significant conservation achievements—mostly through invoking the Antiquities Act under executive order—as their second terms were winding down.

But if the economy does not start to rebound, all bets would likely be off for restoring dwindling park budgets, especially in light of the discretionary spending cap being bandied about in Congress. Indeed, if lawmakers can’t find a way to come up with $1.2 trillion through cuts and/or new revenue-generating programs, all federal discretionary spending will be sliced by 9% across the board.

“If you’re looking ultimately at those kinds of draconian cuts,” says Obey, “you’re going to be seeing seasonal park closures across the country, not to mention specific parks facilities shutting down altogether and the disappearance of seasonal rangers from virtually all parks.” Even if Congress finds a way to avert what would be a disastrous 9% discretionary spending cut in the short term, park budgets could still suffer significantly as lawmakers find other ways to rein in spending until the economy starts to recover.

Will Republicans Support the Parks?

Another dark cloud over the near term prospects for parks could be the election of Obama’s Republican challenger. According to Jim DiPeso, policy director of the nonprofit Republicans for Environmental Protection, national parks are “largely off the radar” for the Republican candidates.

“Mitt Romney hasn’t said much about national parks or public lands in general, except for an off-hand comment before the Nevada caucuses in which he said the federal government owns too much land in that state,” reports DiPeso. “His budget proposal calls for rolling back non-defense discretionary domestic spending to 2008 levels, which presumably means the parks would face a funding rollback as well.”

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, national parks haven’t been an issue given ongoing battles over budgets, deficits and taxes. DiPeso sees that glass as half full, though, considering it good news that national parks are not a hot-button issue in Congress as they were in the mid-1990s. “Unlike the EPA or renewable energy programs lately, the parks have not been a lightning rod for political attacks designed to show how the Republican agenda differs from the administration’s agenda,” he says.

Obey isn’t overly concerned about Republican attacks on parks funding in the long term, as no one wants to be guilty of letting our natural and cultural treasures wither and decay. “There is a ‘carve-out’ on the right for national parks in that even most conservatives acknowledge that government should play a role in protecting them,” Obey says.

Despite the financial and political threats, Obey remains optimistic that lawmakers will do the right thing by the nation’s parks no matter which side of the aisle they are on. But only if constituents speak up and register their support for increasing funding to national parks. “People have to let Congress and the presidential candidates know that national parks are important to them,” he says. “Parks policy really reflects our own values.”

RODDY SCHEER is a Seattle-based journalist and photographer specializing in environmental issues and a contributing editor at E.