Currently, we find ourselves in an increasingly polarized political environment: Democrats mounted a historic filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee, so Republicans revised long-standing rules of the Senate; Republicans promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act for eight years, but the party’s first attempt under a Republican president failed due to a fractured caucus. As we pan back to look at the big picture in Washington, D.C., with the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives under one party control, there are few areas where both parties can find common purpose. Throughout the coming months, we’ll be identifying areas where there are bipartisan opportunities to work together and achieve success for the country – areas that will not only help move the nation forward as a whole, but also those that will set the tone for years to come.
When better to kick off this series than National Parks Week, spanning from April 15th through the 23rd. With the establishment of Yellowstone National Park over 140 years ago, Congress determined that the area between Montana and Wyoming be known as “a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” and placed the land under “exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior,” establishing the country’s first national park. The founding of our first national park began a movement across the United States, prompting other similar areas around the country to become preserved land that millions enjoy daily. Today, the United States boasts over 400 national parks covering more than 84 million acres that conserve the nation’s great beauty.
Last year, Americans celebrated the centennial anniversary of the National Parks Service (NPS), and the national parks are hosting more visitors than ever. As part of the NPS centennial, Congress passed two key bills recognizing the importance of national parks to the American people: the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact (REC) Act (P.L. 114-249) and the National Park Service Centennial Act (P.L. 114-289). The REC Act requires an annual report on the economic impact of the outdoor recreation industry, distinguishing the sector as a critical driver of the national economy. The Centennial bill established funding partnerships and an endowment to ensure support for our national parks continue. Though the trail to the Centennial bill’s passage was long, it passed both chambers with overwhelming bipartisan support.
The bills passed in 2016 did not address the $12 billion backlog faced by our national parks for repairs to park infrastructure, unmaintained trails, and deteriorating buildings, but they serve as a stepping stone for future legislation in this arena.
Already this year, Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Mark Warner (D-VA) have introduced the National Park Service Legacy Act of 2017, which aims to address the most critical projects of the nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog at the Park Service by establishing a dedicated fund. The National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund would be housed at the Department of Treasury and receive funding from mineral royalties not otherwise dedicated to other purposes. The legislation is one possible mechanism for obtaining funding for the NPS, following last year’s Centennial bill, and could garner significant bipartisan support, but alone would not take all the steps necessary to address NPS needs.
Congress may also address issues tangentially related to national parks. One area is the reauthorization and funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which helps provide funding to acquire and manage federal lands. Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) and Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) have introduced bipartisan legislation this year to strengthen and support the LWCF. Additionally, policymakers may move legislation to fix shortcomings in the funding of wildfire fighting efforts. Wildfire suppression funding repeatedly falls short of the nation’s needs, requiring the government to take money from other programs, including money that would otherwise be designated for national parks, to make up the shortfall. Last year, 21 Senators and 151 Representatives cosponsored legislation to address the recurring wildfire funding shortfall. Congress was reportedly close to a deal on this issue last year, and finalizing a solution would provide a fantastic opportunity for bipartisan success that gives lawmakers a “win” while directly impacting lives and lands in the United States.
National parks have also gained attention outside of Congress. President Donald Trump donated his salary for the first quarter of the year to the NPS. While the president’s top-line budget request proposes to reduce the Department of the Interior’s budget, funds from some of the proposed cuts would be redirected to existing national parks under the president’s plan. Ultimately, Congress controls government funding, and President Trump’s budget is just his suggestion for how money should be allocated; however, it is promising that both the legislative and executive branches recognize the importance of addressing the needs of national parks.
The national parks have another advocate in Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. Secretary Zinke hails from Montana – a state with 59 national parks – and literally rode a U.S. Park Police horse to work on his first day as Secretary. He describes himself as a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist and Republican, revering the former president who built a legacy on the designation of national parks and monuments and preserving our nation’s natural areas. Hopefully, Secretary Zinke can work with Republicans and Democrats in Congress to continue Teddy Roosevelt’s work.
As the NPS enters its 101st year, the public is visiting and appreciating our national parks more than ever. Last year, the 114th Congress laid the groundwork for continued investment in our parks. With partisan tensions high, we believe the 115th Congress is well-positioned to work in a bipartisan manner to support national parks. Members of Congress don’t need to ride their horses to work to show their support for national parks (wouldn’t that be cool though?) – throwing their weight behind bipartisan solutions to problems facing our parks will suffice, for now.