The Courthouse Towers are among some of the first features seen entering into Arches National Park in Utah. (Jon Bauer/Herald file photo)

The Courthouse Towers are among some of the first features seen entering into Arches National Park in Utah. (Jon Bauer/Herald file photo)

Editorial: Reliable source needed for national park funding

That national park fees won’t triple is good news, but it doesn’t solve the problem of park funding.

By The Herald Editorial Board

For families hauling out and checking the condition of their camping and hiking gear this spring, the news Thursday was welcomed: The Department of Interior has dropped its earlier plans to nearly triple its entrance fees to $70 a vehicle at 17 of the most popular national parks, including Rainier and Olympic in Washington state.

Instead, the current fees at most national parks and facilities, which now range from $15 to $25, will increase by a more affordable $5.

The announcement followed widespread criticism of the earlier fee increase proposed last year, including more than 109,000 comments to the agency, most opposed to the hefty jump in fees.

The downside is that the modest fee increase, while it will help, won’t come close to closing an estimated $11.6 billion backlog in maintenance at U.S. national parks. But then, the $70 fee wouldn’t have done that either.

According to National Park Service estimates, the increase would have generated about $68 million to $70 million additional each year — assuming the fee hike wouldn’t have discouraged some park visitors — above the $200 million the park service currently collects annually in fee revenue. And only 20 percent of those funds would have gone to parks outside the 17 where the fee increase would be charged, offering little in maintenance funding to the nation’s 400 other parks.

At the same time, the amount of deferred maintenance increases about $275 million each year, meaning the revenue from the higher fee would have only kept the backlog from growing and would not have honestly addressed it.

Previously, we’ve advocated for a funding source that would begin to cut into that backlog and do so without increasing fees or requiring new revenue from taxpayers.

The National Parks Service Legacy Act would use funds collected from offshore oil and gas field royalties. The legislation is similar to a program, shepherded through Congress by Everett’s Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson in 1964 — the Land and Water Conservation Fund — which provides funding for creation and enhancement of parks and public lands and protection of natural resources.

The legacy act — which has bipartisan support, including Washington state co-sponsors Reps. Derek Kilmer and Suzan DelBene in the House and Sen. Patty Murray in the Senate — would use the royalties to allocate $50 million for the park service in its first three years, but ramp that up to $150 million for the next three, $250 million for the following three years and then $500 million each year for the following 20 years well into the 2040s.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in his 2019 budget proposal, calls on Congress to create an $18 billion fund similarly funded by royalty fees. The fund also would increase funding under the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs to rebuild and improve schools for some 40,000 Native American students who don’t have adequate facilities.

But Zinke’s plan envisions an unnecessary supercharging of royalty fees that would only be possible with a massive jump in oil and gas leases on public lands, increasing the negative impacts on public lands and the environment above current levels.

At the same time, while addressing the maintenance backlog, Zinke’s budget would literally decimate the staff of rangers and other park employees. His 2019 budget calls for the layoff of 1,834 park service employees, almost a tenth of the parks’ current workforce. All told, the Interior budget calls for the firing of more than 4,500 Interior employees, including 1,200 at the U.S. Geological Survey and more than 500 each at the Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service.

The result: Zinke’s budget would improve the parks’ infrastructure but not provide the people necessary to operate the parks for the public’s enjoyment and safety.

There’s an even bigger irony in the Interior budget: The proposal calls for the elimination of most funding for Sen. Jackson’s Land and Water Conservation Fund, the very model that Zinke recommends to address the parks’ maintenance backlog. Among the most recent acquisitions the fund aided was the purchase of 165 acres of historic farmland on Whidbey Island, which was added to Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve.

Congress allowed the fund to expire in 2015 before supporters, including several of the state’s representatives and both senators, won approval for temporary support of the program, funding that again will expire this September if not renewed.

Give Secretary Zinke credit for listening to the public and scuttling the plan for an unwise fee increase at national parks and for pushing Congress to honestly address the maintenance backlog at those parks. But what he offers with one hand does not make up for what he would take with the other.

The public, through its 109,000 public comments regarding the fee increase, demonstrated its ability to get the Interior Department and the Trump administration to listen to it. It now needs to use that voice to tell Congress to reject the Interior Department’s proposed budget and establish a reliable source of funding for our national parks.

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