At the end of his 50-minute, flyover-filled Fourth of July speech on Thursday, President Donald Trump offered a thank you to the National Park Service. He owed them one. Some $2.5 million of the total cost of the unprecedented event, the Washington Post reported Tuesday, had been diverted directly from National Park funding. (The Department of the Interior has not responded to Outside's request for more information.)
Specifically, the Post reported that the money was diverted from park fees, which go straight from your wallet to the National Park Service. Parks get to keep around 80 percent of this money, which is estimated to amount to around $310 million in 2019, and tend to use it for maintenance projects, visitor services, and habitat restoration. The Post reported Wednesday that the siphoned funds were likely to be taken from the Washington Mall, or smaller parks around the country—though they also reported that “at one point, Interior officials raised the idea of taking money from sites located in liberal communities such as San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area.”
Trump swiping the National Parks’ lunch money for his party is particularly hard to swallow given that his administration has already proposed severe cuts to the department's budget—by figures approaching a half a billion dollars in both their 2019 and 2020 proposals. (Neither proposed budget has been approved by Congress.) It’s even more troubling when you consider the backlog of nearly $12 billion in necessary maintenance, which includes $3.5 billion needed for “critical” repairs to keep bathrooms, trails, and campgrounds running. The $2.5 million price tag of the July 4th celebration is compounded by the loss of an estimated $6 million in National Park entry fees during the government shutdown earlier this year.
“The cost of our great salute to America tomorrow will be very little compared to what it is worth,” Trump tweeted out Wednesday. Which raises the question: what is $2.5 million worth to our National Parks?
“Two and a half million might seem like nothing, but...you’re looking at very significant dollars that are not available for parks to maintain themselves,” said Theresa Pierno, the president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), a nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization that advocates on behalf of the National Parks. “Within the [National Parks] budget there are an enormous number of projects that $2.5 million could’ve taken care of.”
For context, here are a few projects from the National Parks’ proposed 2020 budget that each cost around $2.5 million:
Law Enforcement Training ($830,000)
This new funding aims to mitigate a basic training backlog that keeps around 200 rangers sidelined annually as they wait for foundational law enforcement training. The July 4th budget diversion could fund this training three times over.
Funding Interpretive and Educational Projects ($1.3 Million)
Interpretive and educational programs consistently rank near the top of both park planning needs and user-generated feedback for National Parks. Funding is proposed to be cut by $500,000 from 2019 to 2020.
Paying Postage Costs ($2.8 Million)
It’s not as badass as an Air Force flyover. But it keeps the National Parks running.
The Volunteers in Parks Program ($2.9 Million)
The annual volunteer force at National Parks provides over seven million hours of work, valued at over $170 million, on a budget that costs the NPS just $400,000 more than a July 4th party.
The “Active Forest Management” Budget ($4 Million)
Four million dollars is earmarked for this program in 2020, which the NPS says is “necessary to reduce the wildfire risk to NPS infrastructure and assets, increasing the safety of firefighters and the public, and minimizing the impacts to park operations, visitor experiences and gateway communities.” Experts predict that 2020 could be an especially bad fire year.
Upgrading and Maintaining the Electrical and Telecommunications Grid in Olympic National Park ($690,000), Renovating 26 Campgrounds in Yosemite ($800,000), and Rehabilitating the Visitor’s Center at the John F. Kennedy National Historic Site ($853,000)
With a couple hundred thousand dollars to spare. “These are projects that repair park facilities that will last for decades,” said John Gardner, senior director of budget and appropriations at the NPCA. “Instead it’s being used for one night of pageantry."
Then there are the programs that the 2020 budget proposes cutting entirely—some of which the $2.5 million diversion could fund or partially fund. This includes four major cultural grant programs: the Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation grants ($1.6 million), Japanese American Confinement Site grants ($2.9 million), American Battlefield Protection Program Assistance grants ($1.2 million), and American Indian and Native Hawaiian Art and Culture grants ($500,000).
Trump’s celebration may yet cost the Department of the Interior more money still. The NPCA, along with Democracy Now, is demanding an investigation into the use of National Parks funds, which they say is illegal according to the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act. Tom Udall, the Senator from New Mexico who is also the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the interior, environment, and related agencies, issued a statement Tuesday after failing to receive a response from the Department of the Interior about a request for more information on the July 4th spending.
“All reports indicate that the president is planning to turn a national day of unity into a day of vanity—trying to use the military for political purposes and doling out perks to his political backers—at the taxpayers’ expense,” Udall wrote. “We need answers.”