Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., left, said the budget justification does not explain what taxpayers would get for their money with the reorganization.

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., left, said the budget justification does not explain what taxpayers would get for their money with the reorganization. Andrew Harnik/AP

House Democrats Attack Interior’s 'Ill-Advised' Reorg Plan

Geological survey chief defends efficiencies that "make it easier to do business."

The Trump administration’s plan to spend $25.3 million to reorganize the Interior Department came under fire at a House appropriations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, as a Democratic chairwoman blasted it as “ill-advised” and said the department’s justification was too vague.  

The plan was introduced under now-departed Secretary Ryan Zinke to reorganize Interior’s non-Washington, D.C., offices into 12 unified regions.

But Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., told a hearing on fiscal 2020 appropriations for the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Geological Survey that “nowhere in these budget justifications does it explain what the American taxpayers get for their money from a reorganization.”

Citing a proposed 12 percent reduction in programs such as those related to climate change, the chairwoman added, “I am not opposed to shared services, finding efficiencies, and increasing collaboration and cooperation. But you don’t need to relocate to make those improvements.”

The planned moves—for which Congress appropriated $14 million last year—were defended by Geological Survey Director Jim Reilly. He said the Trump proposal “makes strategic and tough decisions on how USGS can continue to serve the American people by providing critical science and information to stakeholders…The request strives to more efficiently align resources and make USGS programs easier to track, explain and build associations with.”

Reilly contradicted McCollum’s statement that she’s heard the survey’s headquarters is moving to Denver. “We’re not moving all of headquarters,” he said, noting that the Washington headquarters will continue to do the “strategic piece” while field offices will mimic an existing regional layout, out West, “where a preponderance of Interior’s assets and acres are located.”

The department, Reilly added, “will also leverage the unified regional structure to implement smarter ways to conduct business using shared services and best practices across the department. Efforts are focused on human resources, information technology and acquisition services.” 

Democrats—with some support from ranking member Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio—grilled all three agency representatives on the budget’s call for cutting the National Park Service by $481 million, or 15 percent; the Fish and Wildlife Service by $250 million, or 16 percent; and the Geological Survey by $177 million, or 15 percent.

Joyce said, “the president has done his job, but the cuts should have been far less than 15 percent, and we have some holes to fill.”

McCollum added: “The funding levels in the Trump budget cause needless worry on the part of many Americans who care deeply about our public lands and the people who work to protect them. Our constituents see these cuts, thinking this is the final say, and imagine that the services and opportunities in our parks and our wildlife refuges, and the science we need to understand our world and anticipate natural hazards, will be severely curtailed.”

She also expressed puzzlement that President Trump would propose cutting the Land and Water Conservation Fund from $435 million to $6 million the day before he signed its authorizing legislation. “These budgets were developed solely to hit an arbitrary allocation” from the Office of Management and Budget, McCollum added.

Dan Smith, the Park Service’s deputy director acting as head, stressed that his budget “emphasizes the importance of and commitment to addressing the deferred maintenance backlog faced by nearly every park across the country,” including a proposal to establish a multi-agency Public Lands Infrastructure Fund to address the backlog.

Smith said he had to go along with plans to eliminate funds for programs for National Heritage Areas or those that boost park access by Historically Black Colleges and Universities because “we have priorities” to operate the parks “within budget caps.” Smith said he was reluctant to characterize grant programs as “secondary or tertiary,” but his primary focus was on the people and the deferred maintenance backlog.

The staffing strategy, Smith acknowledged, has been to shift from full-time employees more toward reliance on seasonal volunteers, though that is tougher for the professional-level positions from which many are retiring, he said. Seasonal workers “put people in the parks when our visitors are there,” he said, adding that consolidations save money by assigning one superintendent to several neighboring sites.  

Smith told Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, that the budget does support hiring 18,000 full-time equivalents, even though hiring full-time employees who qualify for Federal Employees Retirement System benefits is very expensive. “The good news is that at the National Park Service, a career is 40 years, not 30,” he said.

McCollum said “there is an actual workforce shortage, and seasonal won’t cut it for some jobs that need to be done.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service is also focusing on “operations and maintenance as our investment priorities,” said Principal Deputy Director Margaret Everson. She said the budget includes some increases, such as the highest amount ever for protecting wildlife refuges. And she countered criticism of cuts in wildlife grants by saying that her staff is “continuing to coordinate with state and tribal partners.” Like the other witnesses, she declined McCollum’s request to identify specific programs or services that won’t get done if the budget cuts go through.

Reilly said the Geological Survey viewed the budget cuts as a “15 percent challenge,” and that his experience at NASA accommodating even deeper cuts taught him that projects may be delayed but can still get done.

He told Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., that he hadn’t heard Kilmer’s reports of withheld funds and delayed spending on hiring and planning at the survey’s Climate Adaptation Science Centers, which are being restructured from eight to four. “It’s hard not to see that as a coordinated effort to undermine their work,” Kilmer said. “Thank goodness Congress has final say.”

Reilly said the centers are undergoing “a realignment and restructuring” and that headquarters “has no incentive to delay funding.” He promised to look into it.

Noting that both Smith and Edwards serve in an acting capacity, McCollum said, “We are more than two years into the Trump administration, and I am disappointed we do not have permanent directors for the Park Service or Fish and Wildlife Service.”