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Commentary: Secretary Zinke’s Empty Promise to Fund the National Parks

April 16, 2018, 3:44 PM UTC

As the saying goes: If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Take Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s proposal to use new revenues from drilling and mining on America’s public lands and oceans to fix up bathrooms, roads, and parking lots in the national parks.

At first glance, the concept seems benign. In fact, a bill to codify it—the National Park Restoration Act—has attracted a bipartisan handful of cosponsors in the Senate and the House.

Read the fine print of Zinke’s proposal, however, and you find a policy proposal that is as diabolically cynical as it is fiscally negligent.

Zinke’s National Park Restoration Act specifies that only if federal energy revenues exceed $7.8 billion per year will the national parks begin to see money for maintenance. For context, federal energy revenues from 2015 to 2017 averaged $6.4 billion per year. In other words, the national parks will not receive a single extra dollar unless oil, gas, and coal revenues to the federal government rise dramatically.

Whether the Grand Canyon can afford to fix its drinking water system should, under no circumstances, depend on whether global oil prices climb high enough to put some money in the National Park Service’s maintenance budget.

But the Trump administration’s oil-for-bathrooms plan is neither likely nor intended to help the national parks. Its primary aim is to justify President Trump’s controversial “energy dominance” agenda.

The administration’s logic goes like this: To generate revenues to fix up our national parks, the U.S. government needs to dramatically expand drilling and mining on America’s public lands and oceans.

Specifically, Secretary Zinke is proposing to allow drilling off every American beach, from California to Florida. He has opened Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments to mining, and is preparing to sell off the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the oil industry.

These are American landscapes where drill rigs and strip mines simply don’t belong. And the idea of selling out these places to help fund the national parks would only add insult to injury.

We are not a country that needs to mine our national monuments to fix roads and commodes in the parks.

To be sure, our national parks and public lands are in dire need of sustained investment. For years, Congress has consistently underfunded America’s natural resource agencies. The U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management have identified more than more than $7.5 billion in maintenance needs for roads, trails, and other infrastructure. The National Park Service has identified a wish list of more than $11 billion in maintenance work, of which roughly $1.3 billion is, in the agency’s assessment, in the most urgent and critical need of attention.

Instead of enacting the Trump administration’s empty funding promise in the National Park Restoration Act, however, Congress should do its basic job of passing adequate annual appropriations.

Sensible, balanced, and sustained investments in the operation and maintenance of all of America’s natural resource agencies will fix up our parks and public lands faster than a hollow oil-for-bathrooms scheme.

More importantly, however, we should be measuring the condition of America’s parks and public lands not solely by the number of potholes in the parking lots, but on the abundance of our wildlife, the purity of our waters, and the wildness of our backcountry.


In fact, it is for this purpose—to conserve natural areas and wildlife across America—that Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) more than 50 years ago. The LWCF, America’s most successful conservation program, uses revenues from existing oil and gas extraction (not the fairytale windfall the Trump administration is promising with its radical and controversial expansion of drilling and mining) to create new parks, protect Civil War battlefields, and expand public access to our outdoors for hunting, fishing, and hiking.

Unlike Zinke’s National Park Restoration Act, the LWCF is a true conservation royalty, in that it uses the revenues from the depletion of finite resources—oil and gas—to permanently protect our natural, historic, and cultural inheritance.

Congress should have no trouble distinguishing a good idea from a bad one. Its Land and Water Conservation Fund—which is scheduled to expire in a matter of months—should be renewed, expanded, and celebrated. The Trump administration’s National Park Restoration Act belongs in the dustbin of false promises and budget gimmicks.

Matt Lee-Ashley is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.