Vice President Mike Pence visited Yellowstone National Park on Thursday to discuss plans for fighting the Park Service’s $12 billion national maintenance backlog and tout their proposed …
Vice President Mike Pence visited Yellowstone National Park on Thursday to discuss plans for fighting the Park Service’s $12 billion national maintenance backlog and tout their proposed Department of Interior budget — which includes nearly $3 billion for national parks.
In a speech in front of Old Faithful, Pence announced the administration’s hope to create the Public Lands Infrastructure Fund, which is part of the president’s 2020 budget proposal. Pence told a small crowd of mostly National Park Service employees that the Trump administration wants to dedicate 50 percent of all revenues from federal energy leases and royalty payments (from all forms of energy: solar, wind, coal, oil, gas, biomass, geothermal, etc.) to improve and maintain the infrastructure of national parks.
He also had a message to park employees from President Donald Trump.
“I wanted to make sure that all of you who make Yellowstone National Park work every day know that, in this administration, in this White House, you have a president who is committed to conservation,” Pence said.
He likened Trump to former President Teddy Roosevelt.
“Allow me to bring greetings from a great, great champion of our national parks and who — like another New Yorker who became president of the United States — believes in investing in and supporting and conserving our great
national treasures,” Pence said to a round of applause.
Assisted by Yellowstone Superintendent Cameron Sholly, Pence, his wife Karen and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt helped build a portion of boardwalk that’s under construction at the park’s top attraction. The group worked for about 30 minutes, mostly as a photo opportunity for the many members of the media at the event. Pence and Bernhardt toted materials while Karen Pence learned to use a nail gun.
In his remarks, Pence said that Bernhardt is “doing an incredible job for America and looking after our vast natural resources.”
“Thank you for your remarkable work preserving, protecting, and improving our national parks and our public lands,” the vice president told the secretary.
Bernhardt replaced former secretary Ryan Zinke, who stepped down in December amidst ethics investigations. He leads an agency with more than 70,000 employees who oversee about 20 percent of the nation’s lands — including national parks, monuments and wildlife refuges. The lawyer and former oil industry lobbyist worked under Zinke and has been described as the architect of the Trump administration’s “energy first” policies.
Bernhardt called for bipartisan support for Trump’s proposed legislation to fix infrastructure at national parks, calling it a “vital need” after “decades of inaction.”
“It’s time to act,” secretary Bernhardt said.
But the hope of full support of the administration’s budget and the proposed Public Lands Infrastructure Fund may be wishful thinking. The administration proposed the same funding legislation for the 2019 budget, but a consensus could not be reached. Many in Congress, where budgets are approved, have come out against the proposals.
“If you think environment conservation is an unaffordable luxury, you’ll love this plan. This isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, it’s dead on arrival in Congress, and printing it was a waste of time,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva in May.
While attendance at Yellowstone National Park and the other 418 National Park Service properties is increasing — rendering services in higher demand — the level of employees in the NPS has remained stagnant, stretching resources thin. And the nearly $3 billion pledge in the administration’s budget doesn’t offer relief. The budget request is a substantial decrease in spending — about 9 percent less than the 2019 budget and $500 million less than the Obama administration’s final NPS budget in 2016.
“No amount of political photo ops will wipe away the Trump administration’s abysmal record on our nation’s prized national parks,” Western Values Project Executive Director Chris Saeger said in a release last week.
John Garder, senior director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), said his group’s biggest concerns are the continued underfunding and gradual understaffing of the Park Service.
Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks have about $1 billion in deferred maintenance, with Yellowstone having some of the highest priority needs, Garder said.
He said the maintenance backlog challenges are simply not something that can continue.
“The longer we wait, the more expensive it’s going to be,” Garder said Monday.
The proposed new fund caps revenues for the backlog at $1.3 billion per year for the $12 billion backlog.
Garder also said the NPCA has little confidence in the Trump administration’s commitment to national parks and environmental issues.
“We have many deep concerns with the administration’s conservation record,” he said. “We’re urging them to turn that record around and for Congress to reject their problematic proposals.”
As Pence and Bernhardt took off in a helicopter to their next destination on Thursday, visitors to Old Faithful were going through a search of personal property and wanded for weapons, including pocket knives. The site was closed during the press conference and traffic to the attraction was altered for several hours.