Proposed Federal Budget Cuts Spell Trouble for NPS and Smokies

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While the administration hasn’t provided much detail about the FY18 budget proposal, there is little question that the potential cuts would put the already under-funded National Park Service, which falls under the Department of Interior, in further decline.

On an operational level, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has dealt with years of absorbing fixed-cost increases and across-the-board budget reductions without a significant base-budget increase—a situation many other national parks are in. The request for $11.6 billion for the DOI is $1.5 billion less than the 2017 continuing resolution level—a drop of 12 percent. Additionally, cuts to the EPA would harm the natural resources that the NPS is charged with protecting. If parks within the NPS are struggling at continuing resolution levels, then a 12 percent cut could be disastrous.

“The administration’s FY18 budget blueprint was an opportunity to set parks on a path to recovery as they enter their next century of service,” says Emily Douce, associate director of Budget & Appropriations, Government Affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association. “Instead, the budget would harm parks and their clean air and water.”

If the DOI receives the slated 12 percent cut, impacts could include closed NPS facilities, and hundreds—or even thousands—fewer rangers. Even at the continuing resolution levels, the NPS has been forced to make cuts as costs grow. Between FY10 and FY15, park service staff were reduced by 2,006–more than 10 percent. A budget cut of 12 percent would only further decrease the NPS workforce, even while visitation continues to climb. The hiring freeze and proposed cuts would likely impact the number of rangers protecting the resources and providing visitors with great experiences. Education rangers teach an estimated 2 million people a year, so more cuts will likely impact the educational programming even more.

The National Parks Conservation Association rejects additional cuts to the National Park Service, Douce says, including to the Land & Water Conservation Fund ($120 million cut from the 2017 annualized continuing resolution level), and to EPA, which protects parks’ air and water. The proposed cuts would eliminate funding for the National Heritage Area program, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts.

The proposed budget for wildland fire suppression, which is more directly relevant to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, appears to have a proposed increase by providing the 10-year rolling average of suppression expenditures. However, there has been a bipartisan effort to alleviate some of these costs of managing the emergency wildfires outside of the annual funding through the appropriations bill. That would free up some funds for other accounts, primarily the U.S. Forest Service and DOI overall.

There is also a slated increased investment in deferred maintenance projects—which could potentially help the Smokies—but the budget proposal reduces other DOI construction and major maintenance program funding. According to the NPCA, Congress has under-funded the NPS construction account for years, and that has led to the huge $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog within the NPS. Since the Smokies doesn’t have additional revenues from entrance fees to help bridge the funding gap, the park’s own deferred maintenance issue has been felt particularly acutely as it has ballooned to $232 million.

High-dollar items of deferred maintenance in the Smokies that contribute to this $232 million backlog include the desperately needed rehabilitation of Cades Cove and Sugarlands Wastewater Treatments plants, as well as road maintenance from a record 11 million visitors during the NPS’s 2016 Centennial.

On March 28, Senators Warner (D-VA) and Portman (R-OH) introduced a stand-alone bill called the National Park Service Legacy Act that, if enacted, would address the most pressing deferred maintenance issues within national parks. Sen. Lamar Alexander announced Wednesday that he will be a cosponsor of the legislation.

Senators Bob Corker and Rep. John Duncan did not respond to requests for comment.

Featured photo by Kristina Plaas. 

Élan Young is a freelance writer and editor living on the beautiful Little River in Walland, Tenn. She’s also a longtime board member for the Little River Watershed Association and an advocate for all things Smokies.

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