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How much for parks? Obama seeks $2.6 billion for national parks, but Congress may trim figure

Bikers and bison must pass in close proximity, particularly in the spring as this photo taken Friday shows. President Barack Obama requested $2.6 billion for the National Park Service’s fiscal year 2015 budget, but it appears unlikely Congress will support that request. Bikers and bison must pass in close proximity, particularly in the spring as this photo taken Friday shows. President Barack Obama requested $2.6 billion for the National Park Service’s fiscal year 2015 budget, but it appears unlikely Congress will support that request. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert, National Park Service

President Barack Obama requested $2.6 billion for the National Park Service’s budget for fiscal year 2015, but it appears unlikely Congress will completely support the president’s proposed figure.

Obama’s budget would boost the service’s essential programs and operational needs by $38.5 million and add $16.6 million for fixed cost increases, according to the Park Service. The federal FY 2015 budget runs Oct. 1, 2014, to Sept. 30, 2015.

While those numbers are on the table, Congress often reduces the president’s budget requests.

“This is his proposed budget,” Grand Teton National Park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said. “It often looks much different by the time the budget is passed.”

Yellowstone’s fiscal year 2012 budget was $34.1 million. FY 2013 was $32 million and FY 2014 was $31.7, said Al Nash, Yellowstone spokesperson.

Grand Teton National Park and John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway’s fiscal year 2012 budget was $12.6 million, FY 2013 was $11.8 million and FY 2014 is $11.8 million, although that has not been officially verified. “It might be another month before we get a confirmed FY 2014 budget,” Skaggs said.

The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area FY 2012 budget was nearly $3.5 million. FY 2013 was nearly $3.3 million. FY 2014 is $3.4. The final number for FY 2014 has not been published. However it is expected to be within $10,000 of the $3.4 million figure, said David Marshall, administration officer for Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area and Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

Under the president’s proposal, Yellowstone’s FY15 base funding would be $34.6 million. Grand Teton’s would be $12.4 million and Bighorn Canyon’s $3.6 million. Those figures are according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture “Budget Justifications and Performance Information Fiscal Year 2015.”

Whether funds arrive from congressional appropriations or entrance fees, funding is crucial to maintain Yellowstone’s infrastructure, visitor services and to plow roads in the spring.

“It’s critical that we have adequate funding for the park,” said Scott Balyo, executive director of Cody Country Chamber of Commerce.

Bighorn Canyon is working off a tight budget, said Christy Fleming, chief interpretive ranger at Bighorn Canyon. If Congress was a little more generous in funding, the park could conduct more public outreach at schools, libraries and campground programs.

They could offer more kayak and aquatic invasive species education, said Fleming.

“Even in challenging budget times the National Park System has done reasonably well when it comes to appropriations (from Congress),” Nash said.

Skaggs visited Grand Teton and Yellowstone for the first time with her family when she was 12 and said she wonders if that planted the seed to pursue a career in national parks. National Parks contribute to the economy, but it may be difficult to quantify what those vacations mean to families, Skaggs said.

“You can’t put a price tag on those memories,” Skaggs said.

Many out-of-state visitors to Bighorn Canyon are arriving fresh from Yellowstone. They enjoy the quiet, relaxed pace at Bighorn and being the only ones on hiking trails. Folks from around the region come to fish, boat, hike and view the wildlife and wild horses. “The locals,” Fleming said, “it’s their backyard.”

The NPS’ 100-year anniversary is 2016, Skaggs said.

“As we prepare for our centennial, the president’s budget request recognizes the importance of investing in an historic effort to attract and host more visitors, leverage additional private philanthropy for the parks, and help build the institutional capacity to maintain the parks for the next 100 years,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis March 4. “The budget supports our core mission and proposes a comprehensive centennial initiative to help preserve these treasured lands and icons for this and future generations.”

The president’s request includes a discretionary increase of $40 million to prepare for and celebrate the centennial, comprised of $30 million for operations to support an expected influx of visitors during the centennial celebrations and to provide for visitor services and infrastructure investments in its second century of preserving the parks for on-going usage and the future enjoyment of visitors, said the USDA report.

Economic engines

Keeping national parks afloat does influence the national and local economy, according to the NPS.

A March 3 report released by the NPS said national parks across the country generated $14.75 billion in direct spending within 60 miles of a national park, supporting 243,000 jobs in 2012.

The Wyoming tourism and hospitality industry employed 30,500 people in 2012. That is 8 percent of the state’s population. “Tourism is our No. 2 industry,” Balyo said.

“Travel spending by all domestic and international visitors in Wyoming was approximately $3.1 billion in 2012. This is equivalent to approximately $8.5 million per day,” according to “Wyoming Travel Impacts, 1998-2012,” prepared for the Wyoming Office of Tourism in April 2013.

“Local and state tax revenues generated by travel spending were about $128 million in 2012 (excluding property taxes). Without these travel generated tax revenues, each household in Wyoming would have had to pay an additional $560 in taxes to maintain these current state and local tax revenues,” said the Wyoming Office of Tourism.

Another March 3 NPS report said in 2012, more than $400 million was spent by visitors in communities near Yellowstone supporting 5,619 jobs. In Grand Teton, that figure was nearly $492 million spent in gateway communities supporting 6,925 jobs. It was more than $9.8 million in communities near Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area supporting 140 jobs.

“Yellowstone was not created to be an economic engine for the region, but it has become so,” Nash said.

“We always appreciate whatever basic funding we can get from Congress,” Skaggs said. “Many members of Congress recognize the economic value of national parks.”

The official number of recreational visits to national parks during the 2012 fiscal year was 282.7 million. In 2013 it was 273.6 million.

The 3 percent drop is due to federal government shutdown in the fall of 2013 and Hurricane Sandy in late 2012, according to the NPS. That resulted in a loss of $414 million in NPS visitor spending within gateway communities.

When Yellowstone closed early last fall during the government stalemate, communities around Yellowstone lost $15.7 million in revenue, Nash said.

Political realities

Wyoming’s representatives in Washington, all of whom are Republicans, were divided on the closure.

Sen. Mike Enzi voted to shut down the government, as did Rep. Cynthia Lummis. Sen. John Barrasso voted against it.

“Senator Enzi is especially sensitive to the needs of communities near Yellowstone and the important role our parks play in Wyoming’s economy,” said Daniel Head, Enzi’s press secretary. “He was one of the first members of Congress to push for the parks to be reopened during the shutdown. The senator said the parks should never have been closed and his attempts to open the parks were blocked by the Senate majority.”

Barrasso said the nation is $17 trillion in debt and can’t afford to divert funding to new parks and new programs.

“Before I make any final decisions about the budget request for FY 2015, I want to hear directly from Interior Secretary (Sally) Jewell about the Park Services’ specific plan for how they will prioritize this funding,” he said.

Keeping the parks open to visitors is a top priority of Lummis, according to her press secretary, Joe Spiering.

“An efficient operating budget is necessary for the Wyoming economy and will be an important component of the House Interior bill,” Spiering said. “Rep. Lummis is examining the president’s budget proposal carefully to ensure all spending meets the fiscal constraints of the Budget Control Act.”

“America’s national parks are incredibly valuable to visitors and are critical to the tourism industry in Wyoming — especially our gateway communities,” said Barrasso. “We need to make sure our national parks have the resources necessary to ensure they can continue to operate safely and address the more than $11 billion maintenance backlog.”

“President Obama’s budget has no chance of becoming law as the Senate majority has already announced that they have no plans to write or adopt a budget resolution this year,” Head said.

Congress’ plan is to continue operating under the spending levels set by the Murray-Ryan Budget passed by Congress in December following negotiations led by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

“Funding for the National Park Service will be determined later this year as appropriators put together bills to fund the government,” Head said. “However, we do not know at this time what amount they will be funded at.”

Some politicians, including the president, said Murray-Ryan was a step in the right direction toward easing the partisan stalemate in Washington, D.C. That drew fire from one D.C. pundit.

“In other words, we’re supposed to congratulate Congress for reaching a bipartisan agreement that partially fixes something it broke,” said E.J. Dionne Jr., a Washington Post columnist and blogger.

If Washington, D.C. lawmakers can reach an accord with the president, the National Park Service’s 2015 budget would be finalized by Oct. 1.

1 comment

  • posted by Dewey

    April 15, 2014 9:38 am

    Not voting to partially shut down the federal government last year was one of the very few things you can count on one hand that Barrasso has done right in his Senatorial career. Lummis and Enzi , in the wrong on that . Typically so. Ideology trumping pragmatism.

    Having said that , it's important to note that Congress was sequestering the Park Service for decades . Ever since James Watt-Reagan days, Congress took national park revenues back into the general fund, dispersed them as they say fit, but never re-appropriated enough for Parks like Yellowstone to keep up with even basic maintenance. Congress used the national parks as a cash cow, then turned around and starved that cow. For 20+ years.

    This was somewhat remediated when the very conservative but also pragmatic Craig Thomas got legislation in 2003 that allowed Yellowstone to keep sixty percent of its own gate revenues for its own infrastructure needs. That helped a lot, but by then Yellowstone's deferred maintenance list was too huge to catch up to. Still is.

    What Congress doesn't seem to understand or refuses to acknowledge is national parks are a money maker and economic multiplier. The crude politics of " shrink de gubbamint" by ill-guided conservatives keep getting in the way.

    Which is something all three of our Wyoming reps need to work on , assertively. It's time they quit being Republican and started being American.

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