Park Service deputy grilled on damage to parks during government shutdown

Yosemite National Park is among the 100 parks that remained open, and sustained damage, during the government shutdown earlier this year. (Sherry Devlin/Missoula Current)

The amount taxpayers will fork over to repair damage that occurred at several national parks during the longest government shutdown in U.S. history is not yet known but a report is coming soon, the deputy director of the National Park Service told lawmakers Wednesday while defending the decision to keep parks open.

Appearing before a House Natural Resources subcommittee to outline the National Park Service’s 2020 budget, Deputy Director Dan Smith faced a series of tough questions from lawmakers seeking answers about damage at Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Yellowstone and Death Valley national parks during the 35-day government shutdown initiated by President Donald Trump that ended in January.

At Joshua Tree National Park in California, staff found at least one of the namesake trees knocked down by a vehicle while other pinion and juniper trees were cut down and used for kindling. Park superintendents also spotted the tracks of an off-road vehicle in a restricted area that stretched through roughly 27 miles of pristine wilderness. There were more than 115 illegal campsites – with evidence that fires were lit without supervision- discovered at the park following the shutdown.

Off-road vehicles also tore across the playas at Death Valley, etching treads into the badlands which could last for hundreds of years. Trash, human waste and other debris piled up high at places like Yellowstone and Yosemite during the shutdown, spreading litter throughout the parks and disturbing the natural habitat.

Smith said Wednesday the debris was cleaned up in a matter of days and during recent visits to the sites, the damage that unfolded this winter has been “mostly” rectified, though the full extent of the damage and the exact cost to taxpayers is still unclear.

Smith did, however, promise to deliver an estimate to Congress “very shortly” along with a full report detailing the executive decisions he and acting Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt made in January, including Bernhardt’s decision to draw on reserve funds to keep national parks open while lawmakers in Washington scrambled to reopen the government.

Rules laid out in the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act typically bar the use of park fees for basic maintenance like sanitation, road maintenance or other emergency operations. But in consultation with Bernhardt and others in the department, Smith said they agreed to use the funds to keep at least 100 parks open while 300 others were closed.

“I hope we never go through another 35-day lapse in appropriations for the Park Service, but the department had the authorization to use funds for maintenance and repairing visitor facilities,” Smith said. “We followed through and used them appropriately.”

Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, said the park system hemorrhaged $400,000 a day in entrance fees alone during the shutdown and has yet to propose a plan to replace that lost revenue.

“We fell further behind, sustained damage and nothing in today’s budget request addresses any of that,” Huffman said.

What the budget does include, however, are steep cuts for the year ahead. For 2020, the White House has proposed a Park Service budget of just $2.7 billion, going back to the 2010 level despite a growing deferred maintenance backlog – it jumped from $11.6 billion to $11.9 billion last year – and a steady uptick in park visitors.

The service has also cut back significantly on full-time employment opportunities, slashing 3,500 of those positions.

Smith told lawmakers Wednesday this trend would continue as the department moves toward more cost-effective seasonal hiring.

“We don’t have to pay for retirements and all that,” he said of the decision.

The budget also does not include any funding for Native American or tribal historical and cultural site preservation and altogether removes funding for reparation grants.

“This is deeply harmful to tribes … that funding goes toward working with law enforcement officers to prosecute looters of Indian remains, operate museums and cultural centers, register historical places and revitalize cultural traditions and native languages,” Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., said Wednesday.

“Did you not have direct consultation with the tribes on this budget?” Gallego asked.

Smith said he did not, prompting Gallego to shoot back, “At least you admit it.”

Smith then reminded the lawmaker it was ultimately up to Congress to decide if certain programs should actually receive funding or not.

“Budgets are a reflection of your values,” Gallego said. “I know what my values are and where I think we should be concentrating our efforts. At a minimum, consultation with tribal communities should have been a prerequisite.”