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The bureaucrats in charge of U.S. national parks and forests are $17.2 billion dollars in the hole, according to a new report by the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC).
The report found the National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) owe billions in backlogged expenses and aren’t trying to fix the problem, as they’re still almost completely reliant on Congress for funding. NPS and USFS can make significant reductions to the backlog without budget increases by reducing costs and slashing red tape, a Congressional committee reported Thursday in a hearing. The committee also noted that both agencies previously resisted similar advice.
“The Park Service is almost entirely reliant on Congress for funding,” Shawn Regan, a researcher with PERC, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Very little comes from user fees. There are benefits to having parks become more self-sufficient when possible.”
Currently, NPS owes almost $12 billion in deferred maintenance and other backlogged expenses, meaning that the agency would need to spend five times the amount it gets every year from Congress to fix its maintenance backlog, which is expected to grow each year. The USFS has a similar backlog of roughly $5.2 billion.
“Politicians would much rather create a new park than fund existing parks and that’s the problem,” Regan said. “From 2006 we had 390 national park units. We have 417 today. This growth in the number of park units doesn’t come with new funding, it spreads the NPS’ resources thinner and thinner and makes the problem worse.”
Much of the enormous backlog facing the two agencies is caused by expanding operations at the expense of basic maintenance. The NPS added 18 new units to the national parks system since 2009, costing the agency an enormous amount of money. As the mission of NPS expanded, the agency became increasingly unable to fund necessary maintenance projects.
The correlation between new park units and deferred maintenance is quite direct. The U.S. government has spent more than $10 billion acquiring new public lands, according to the Congressional Research Service.
“Yellowstone and Yosemite National Park each have maintenance backlogs that are half a billion dollars,” Regan told TheDCNF. “Those are the crown jewels of the NPS and we’re not even maintaining them because we’re distracted with all these new units. There are a lot of ways the Park Service could set fees so that they could rely more on users than on Congress for revenue.”
The problem with backlogged maintenance has been going on for quite some time, but the agency has been reluctant about raising money by charging fees or authorizing businesses in the parks.
“NPS misses a lot of opportunities to raise funds,” Regan said. “Seniors used to only pay $10 dollars for a lifetime pass to all NPS parks and they’d never have to pay again. That’s ridiculous.”
PERC previously recommended that NPS sell off unnecessary federal lands and use the proceeds to address the backlog, work closer with the private sector to raise revenues or allow park managers to set up user fees without Congressional approval.
“Some federal lands have very little public value and could be sold to private users,” Regan continued. “85 percent of Nevada is federally owned, but the authority to sell of the lands has expired. Why not sell off that land and use the revenues to maintain these parks?”
NPS, the USFS and other agencies control a lot of land, but they generally lose money even when renting it out to private industries for use. Additionally, the federal government imposes restrictions on how leased land can be used. Consequently, mining and energy tend to be the only profitable leases.
“The federal government loses money on most aspects of federal land management whether it is timber, grazing or recreation,” Regan noted. “The only exception is mineral and energy development. If we make the process of developing resources on federal lands easier that could go a long way. The total US oil and natural gas production from federal lands has declined steadily despite a boom in energy on private land.”
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