Natural resources programs hit hard in push for fiscal austerity

The National Park Service has had to absorb more than $300 million in fixed costs over the last six years, including new homeland security requirements, leading to cutbacks on daily operations like visitor services and buying supplies.

Despite broad bipartisan support, programs funded by the Interior-Environmental Protection Agency spending bill, including national parks, are facing cuts for the second year in a row. With major entitlement programs and discretionary programs such as defense, veterans and homeland security off limits for cuts, natural resources programs have emerged as a target for GOP lawmakers seeking to demonstrate fiscal austerity.

In the first week of May, the House Interior-EPA Appropriations Subcommittee is expected to consider a bill coming in close to the White House's $25.4 billion request, which would be a 1.6 percent cut from fiscal 2006. Overall, including construction, maintenance and other accounts, the Park Service request is $2.16 billion, a $100.5 million cut from last year.

The $1.74 billion parks operating request is a $23 million increase from last year, which at 1.4 percent would not cover inflation. Also, 30 percent of that increase would go to automatic, fixed costs such as pay raises and security, meaning of that increase, only 70 percent would accommodate everyday operating costs.

Members in both chambers have written to the Appropriations Committees seeking a $150 million increase for parks operations, led by Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., and Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind. At a hearing earlier this month, House Interior-EPA Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Charles Taylor, R-N.C., and ranking member Norman Dicks, D-Wash., expressed concern about the budget request.

Taylor said the committee was "troubled" and that "we seem to be losing ground in this budget." Park Service Director Fran Mainella said the request will "assist the administration in meeting its goal of cutting the federal budget deficit in half by 2009" while enabling parks and visitors centers to remain open.

However, Mainella told the committee that "we will have to make some management decisions" under the proposed funding levels.

The Park Service has had to absorb more than 30 percent of its fixed costs annually since fiscal 2002 as part of its operating budget, which means it has had to defer spending on services such as visitor center hours, educational programs and custodians, according to a GAO report to appropriators earlier this month.

The National Parks Conservation Association puts the annual shortfall at more than $600 million a year, arguing that even before new fixed costs over the last six years, parks were operating on about 65 percent of what was needed to cover daily costs.

Homeland security costs have accounted for $30 million annually the agency has had to budget for since Sept. 11, 2001. That includes the cost of security at the major park "icons" such as Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty.

Across-the-board cuts have been another factor, totaling about $52 million over six years. Interior-EPA programs actually endured a nearly 1.5 percent across-the-board cut in fiscal 2006, including the major 1 percent cut applied at the end of the budget cycle last year and an earlier 0.476 cut applied to their own bill earlier in the year to make it fit within budget caps.

The cumulative cost of salary increases the Parks Service has had to absorb has been $82 million, according to agency estimates.

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