After Interior Secretary Zinke’s First 100 Days, Future of National Parks and Their Visitors Looks Grim
5 ways the official at the helm of America’s public lands has been charting a troubling course for national parks during the first few months of his tenure.
By Theresa Pierno, President and CEO for National Parks Conservation Association
Today marks Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s 100th day leading the federal agencies that manage much of our public lands, including the National Park Service. Secretary Zinke has described himself as a “Theodore Roosevelt” Republican and pledged to make park issues a focus of his tenure, including tackling the National Park Service’s more than $11.3 billion maintenance backlog and keeping park rangers on the job.
But is he living up to these promises? While there are plenty of opportunities for Secretary Zinke to work to protect and fund our parks, his and the Trump administration’s actions to date may have detrimental long-term impacts for our national parks. Under his leadership, parks face multiple new threats.
- An administrative budget proposal would cut 13 percent of Park Service funding. If enacted, it would be the largest cut to the agency since World War II. This budget could mean fewer park rangers and staff to maintain and care for our parks. It would also mean cuts to programs that protect our shared American history in communities across the country. The administration has claimed its budget proposal includes increases to help address the multibillion-dollar backlog, but the reality is, under the Trump administration’s budget, money for these maintenance needs would actually decrease.
- In a call to review federal policies that might “burden” domestic energy production, the Department of the Interior is reviewing rules for oil and gas drilling inside national park units. These commonsense guidelines establish safety and enforcement standards for existing or potential oil and gas drilling in more than 40 national parks including Everglades, Cuyahoga Valley and Mesa Verde. This review presents a clear threat to the Park Service’s mandate to leave parks “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
- A temporary federal hiring freeze earlier in the year impeded the Park Service’s ability to hire permanent staff, including park rangers. This freeze could challenge Park Service managers to adequately fulfill their mission to support parks. These types of actions — such as reducing staff in the Park Service’s Washington Support Office, Denver Service Center and regional offices — should not be undertaken without thoughtful attention to the important services these offices provide. Secretary Zinke has also expressed interest in privatizing certain park services like park campsites, but NPCA is concerned that significant privatization of park services or public-private partnerships could elevate private interests over the public interest. While concessions play an important role in our parks, so do the many park rangers who are a central part of the experience for the visitors who value them.
- The Department of the Interior is currently reviewing 27 national monuments designated through the Antiquities Act with the potential to alter or rescind federal protections on these sites. The Interior is specifically targeting two national park sites: Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine and Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in Idaho. The Antiquities Act is a century-old bipartisan conservation tool used by nearly every president since 1906 (eight republicans and eight democrats) to create more than 150 national monuments — many of which are national park sites. While specific monuments were singled out by Secretary Zinke, this process opens the door to review ALL national monuments designated since 1996. To date, more than one million Americans have spoken up in support for keeping these monuments protected, just as they are.
- In April, the Department of the Interior reversed course on previous rulings and took steps to approve a dangerous groundwater mining proposal that threatens Mojave National Preserve, the third-largest national park site in the lower 48 states. The Cadiz Inc. proposal would pump 16 billion gallons of water per year from the Mojave Desert to southern Orange County by way of a pipeline. This project threatens the park as well as the plant and wildlife that rely on fragile desert water sources.
A sampling of Secretary Zinke’s actions to date call into question his commitment to honoring Roosevelt’s values, park landscapes, Park Service staff and more. We are troubled by this trajectory and remain hopeful that Secretary Zinke will honor our nation’s history in the manner anticipated by the Organic Act that governs our national parks: “….to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
We will continue to hold Secretary Zinke accountable to prioritize the protection and defense of our national parks. Our nation’s natural resources and history depend on them.