Congress Doesn’t Have Any Presents for Parks for National Park Week
National parks protect some of our country’s most iconic landscapes and important places of history and culture. They are uniquely American, and they unite us as a nation. From now through April 23rd, we celebrate these incredible places with National Park Week.
Parks will be free to the public this weekend, and will be hosting special events like ranger-led hikes, junior ranger days and battle demonstrations. It’s a special time every year to get out and enjoy places like Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains and Independence Hall, and be reminded how fortunate we are to have these 417 sites that have been protected for us, and for all those who will come after us.
Some members of Congress, who are in their home districts this weekend, may be among those getting out to the parks and enjoying all they have to offer. They may proclaim, just as we do, how much they love national parks and how important they are to our shared American heritage.
But while our national parks are the guardians of that heritage, it is Congress that is the caretaker of our National Park Service. Our national parks are facing many challenges, and they need Congress’s help, but too often, Congress has not risen to that charge.
In fact, when they return to Congress next week, it’ll be around 100 days since the 115th Congress convened. What has Congress done for our parks in that time? Not much. Here are some highlights:
Attacking a Critical Conservation Law
For more than a century, the Antiquities Act of 1906 has been an invaluable tool for protecting our shared heritage as a nation. From the Statute of Liberty to the Grand Canyon, the Antiquities Act was used to preserve places of natural, historic and cultural significance. Except for the Organic Act of 1916, no law has had more influence over the expansion of the modern National Park System.
Yet, a vocal minority in Congress repeatedly try to thwart the act. At least six bills (three in each chamber) have been introduced to weaken the important conservation law or exempt certain areas from possible designations. In addition, the House Natural Resources Committee has held one hearing attacking marine monuments and intends to hold more hearings attacking other national monuments that protect wildlife habitat and sacred sites.
Stripping Away Protections for Park Wildlife
Viewing wildlife in beautiful park scenery is one of the chief reasons people visit parks. Even the National Park Service’s own emblem features a bison, a species once faced with extinction but, thanks in part to national parks, is once again thriving.
Unfortunately, some in Congress are working to remove safeguards for wildlife in the very places these animals should be protected.
During the previous Congress, both the House and Senate passed legislation threatening the safety of wildlife both within and surrounding national park lands. This Congress is picking up where the last left off with the introduction of at least two different bills to dismantle or otherwise undermine the Endangered Species Act, and the Senate held a hearing on ways to weaken portions of the law.
In addition, both chambers passed and the President signed a revocation of protections for Alaskan wildlife from aggressive sport-hunting practices like spotlighting denning bears and cubs. Congress used the Congressional Review Act to remove these protections.
Rollback of Protections for Park Waters
The health of America’s national parks is directly linked to the health of the waters that surround and flow through them. But just weeks into the new session of Congress, lawmakers voted to undermine the protection of national park waterways.
In early February, Congress used the Congressional Review Act to repeal the Stream Protection Rule, which safeguards streams from pollution created by mountaintop removal and surface coal mining. The Stream Protection Rule was decades in the making and backed by a robust, multi-year public engagement process, which addressed more than 100,000 public comments. Yet in just a matter of weeks, Congress chose to permanently reverse these protections, endangering national parks and recreation areas like Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee.
Improving Visits to National Parks?
In what seemed like a positive move, the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Interior, Energy, and Environment held a hearing entitled “Oversight Hearing on Improving the Visitor Experience at National Parks.” Though there was a problem. No one from the National Park Service, National Parks Conservation Association or any other parks-affiliated friends group or business testified at the hearing. How can Congress help the Park Service improve visitor experience if they aren’t talking with anyone knowledgeable about national parks and what they are facing?
When Congress returns to Washington next week, it will have a lot on its plate, including passing a short-term spending bill and setting the course for a longer-term spending bill for fiscal year 2018. This is an opportunity for Congress to reassess the direction it’s taking on national parks, and take steps to help parks tackle the challenges they face rather than add to them.
One particularly pressing challenge is parks’ growing list of major repairs that continues to be pushed off. We all know what happens when we don’t repair our homes or cars — the problem tends to get worse. Across the country, our parks are facing more than $12 billion in needed infrastructure repairs — roads, bridges and visitor centers, yet the Park Service receives less than 60 cents out of every dollar it needs just to keep the backlog from growing.
This is a significant problem that needs significant money to fix it, but the Administration just proposed cutting $1.5 billion, or 12 percent, of the Interior Department’s budget, which funds our national parks. There’s no doubt this will further hamper our ability to tackle the backlog of projects.
Congress needs to take care of its responsibility and work together to make sure the National Park Service has the funding they need to carry out their mission and maintain our parks well into the future.
When Congress returns to Washington after this National Park Week, they must ensure our parks and their wildlife and water are protected now and for the next 100 years. Efforts to undermine bedrock environmental laws and policies that our national parks and public lands depend on must stop.