Recently, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke employed a bait-and-switch defense of President Trump’s bait-and-switch budget proposal for the Department of the Interior.
The bait? An $18 billion fund for fixing the National Park Service’s massive maintenance backlog. The switch? It’d be paid for by deregulating oil and gas extraction on public lands, firing NPS employees, and empowering Zinke to sell off any public lands he wishes. Make no mistake, this would be a disaster for America’s national parks, and it probably won’t even fix the damn potholes.
That’s all part of the White House’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal. As a recap for those of you fortunate enough to not have to closely follow Washington’s political machinations, the White House budget isn’t law. It’s more a piece of science fiction about how the president and his minions hope the government might work next year. This being the Trump White House we’re talking about, this particular budget proposal is a little more fictional than usual—Forbes calls it “pure fantasy.”
Still, as a statement of how the executive branch wishes it could govern—or, more appropriately, how badly it wishes it could screw the American people—the budget proposal is telling. It’s the first time we’ve seen an outline of exactly what Trump and Zinke plan to do to our national parks.
The big proposal here is the creation of that $18 billion infrastructure fund for the NPS. Like the $1.5 trillion in national infrastructure spending Trump called for in his State of the Union address, the vast majority of that total will need to come from private industry. Specifically, the budget calls for the federal government to contribute only $257 million over the next ten years, while the remaining $17.743 billion would come from the energy extraction industries.
That sounds pretty good, right? The NPS currently has an $11.6 billion maintenance backlog and is desperately in need of repairs to its roads, trails, visitor facilities, and other infrastructure assets. Placing the majority of that burden on private industry operating on public lands seems like a great way to fix all that without raising taxes or visitor fees.
The trouble is that the money earmarked for the fund is essentially fictional. The budget proposal says it will be derived by taking 50 percent of any energy leasing receipts that exceed the 2018 budget projections and that are also not otherwise allocated. In order for it to pay out as planned, we must assume that other allocations won’t require more money than planned, that rates for energy leases (and energy sales) will remain stable, and, of course, that the the number of leases will massively expand.
In reality, the Trump budget provides only a tiny fraction of the money needed for park infrastructure—just $257 million over ten years—and the rest may nor may not turn up. Fun fact: That ten-year total number doesn’t even match the annual rate at which the backlog expands. The NPS’s maintenance backlog is growing $275 million a year.
The other news here is even worse. The budget calls for firing 1,835 NPS employees, at a time when national park visitation is at its highest level ever. It would also remove 559 people from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1,209 from the U.S. Geological Survey, and 330 from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The only two DOI offices the budget plans to increase? The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the office of Natural Resources Revenue.
The budget also suggests selling off the George Washington Parkway and Baltimore Washington Parkway, two D.C.-area roads that are owned by the Park Service. That may sound practical—toll roads make a ton of financial sense—but in so doing, the budget gives the DOI the authority to sell off any other public lands that “demonstrate an increase in value from the sale” and “optimize the taxpayer value for Federal assets.” In short, if he can make money from them, Zinke can sell public lands willy-nilly—the language giving him authorization to do so is hidden inside an otherwise practical provision.
While that’s going on, the budget calls for what the Washington Post says is a 23 percent cut in the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency and eliminates that department’s programs related to climate change. It also removes funding for renewable energy development.
If the Park Service does get the money it needs to fill its potholes, then it will come at the expense of the staff it needs to serve the public, and keep them safe, and at a terrible environmental cost. The beautiful scenery and incredible wildlife the NPS was created to protect could be destroyed by the budget Trump and Zinke are claiming is pro-park.
And none of this is actually being done to save money or prioritize small government. The New York Times calculates that the budget will add $7 trillion to the national deficit over the next ten years.
Discussing the budget, Zinke states, “We are putting an emphasis on rebuilding our national park system, making sure our greatest treasures are protected. This budget is all about rebuilding our park system.” That is a damn lie.
Our national parks aren’t being loved to death. With this budget, the Trump administration and Zinke’s DOI are purposefully setting out to destroy them.