According to an internal letter obtained by the Hill on Friday, acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt authorized over 100 national parks to spend $252.9 million in "unobligated" revenue dollars previously collected from things like park entrance fees and parking during the partial government shutdown earlier this year.
Pacific Standard previously reported that the National Park Service lost $10 to $14 million in entrance fee revenue during the shutdown while many parks remained open without staff to collect entrance fees. This number did not include the estimated amount of funding spent to perform necessary services to keep parks open, like trash collection and restroom cleaning, which the $252.9 million now figure accounts for. The NPS is still calculating how much was actually spent during the shutdown, and it is expected to be just a fraction of that amount.*
National parks can collect "recreation fees" under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act to go toward park maintenance and enhancement projects. The NPS provides a budget to Congress showing how it intends to use those fee dollars each year, though doing so doesn't necessarily set those funds aside as "obligated." Potential projects for 2019 include upgrading the interpretive exhibits at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., improving a parking lot in Northern California's Muir Woods, and replacing an entrance station at Yellowstone National Park.
"These projects can maybe go forward still, but if you're taking fee dollars and spending them to do what should have been paid for by Congress to clean up trash and to clean the bathrooms, that's going to have an impact on these projects down the road," says Emily Douce, the director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association's government affairs team. This adds an extra burden to the NPS's $11.6 billion deferred maintenance backlog.
Members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies are looking into the legality of Bernhardt's decision to tap into the recreation fees for operational costs. An internal NPS memo released at the beginning of February confirmed that Congress would replenish the FLREA funds spent during the shutdown under the fiscal year 2019 Further Additional Continuing Appropriations Act.*
According to Douce, Bernhardt's justification for spending the FLREA funds on operational costs was that it fulfilled the NPS mission by allowing visitors to continue to enjoy the parks while the government was shut down. Under the NPS Organic Act, the agency has a dual mission of conserving park resources and providing for visitor enjoyment.
"We do want people to have a good experience in our national parks, but we also want our park resources to be protected, and we think there was a lack of that during the shutdown," Douce says.
*Update—March 13th, 2019: This post has been updated to clarify that the NPS is still calculating the total amount spent during the shutdown, and to further explain the content of an NPS memo regarding reimbursement of funds spent during the shutdown.