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WASHINGTON — “Our parks are literally crumbling,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said last week at a meeting of senior National Park Service (NPS) officials, repeating a theme he has sounded frequently since being confirmed earlier this year. Bernhardt described visiting a maintenance shed at Acadia National Park in coastal Maine where the grout between concrete blocks had worn away almost completely, he said, effectively creating new — and unwanted — windows.
Bernhardt used that story to illustrate a pervasive state of disrepair, which he claims can be fixed only with a $12 billion investment. Because that funding isn’t likely to materialize from Washington, Bernhardt believes that the Interior Department —which administers the nation’s public lands — must look elsewhere for new sources of revenue.
Supporters see creativity at work, the kind of collaboration between the private and public sectors that many have expected from President Trump, whether for national parks or international airports. But critics see little more than a strategically inflated figure meant to frighten the public into accepting corporate giveaways.
“We are begging Congress” for funds, Bernhardt said during last Tuesday’s meeting of the parks advisory council, even though he had supported the radical cuts Trump tried to force on the National Park Service.
Bernhardt’s remarks last week — delivered in the Interior Department’s penthouse, which is decorated by a recently restored 80-year-old Native American mural — made clear that the administration’s search for new revenue continues apace. Trump’s Interior Department has already considered raising entry fees to national parks. At the same time, the department has leased hundreds of thousands of acres to energy companies.
“If David Bernhardt gets his way, American families will pay more to access their birthright, because Trump's billionaire buddies and the special interests that made them rich will always come first in this administration,” says Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project, a not-for-profit organization that opposes the Trump administration.
The $12 billion in deferred maintenance has become a frequent talking point for members of the Trump administration. In June, Bernhardt and Vice President Mike Pence visited Yellowstone National Park. “Our national parks need more than $12 billion to repair aging infrastructure due to decades of inaction,” he said at the time, “and we are calling on Congress to support on a bipartisan basis the Trump administration’s proposal to address this vital need. It’s time to act.”
Critics, however, say the $12 billion number is vastly inflated, and is being used by the administration to advance radical measures that could include privatization of federal lands. The Interior Department has, for example, proposed an infrastructure fund that would “establish a dedicated revenue stream generated from federal energy leases and royalty payments.” Many of those leases would go to oil and gas producers eager to drill across the Western U.S., including near many national parks. Bernhardt is himself a former oil and gas lobbyist.
President Theodore Roosevelt, who created the national parks, often spoke of his love for unspoiled nature. By contrast, in his address to the national parks advisory council, Bernhardt spoke about parking lots that needed to be expanded to accommodate larger cars. There were several references to “enhancing” visitors’ experiences, as well as a reminder that the park service had always been “in the marketing business.”
Interior Department communications official Nicholas Goodwin said that nothing in Bernhardt’s comments should be taken as a hint of coming privatization efforts. Echoing those remarks, Goodwin said that Interior needed a “dedicated revenue stream” to address its multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog. And he defended the creation of an infrastructure fund seeded with proceeds of drilling and other energy-related activities (including potentially renewable energy projects) on federal lands.
“Our parks are one of our nation’s most treasured resources — restoring them will require every tool in the box,” Goodwin told Yahoo News.
Congress remains the best hope for national parks: A 2015 analysis by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found that a full 88 percent of park funding comes through the appropriations process, making that by far the most dedicated “revenue stream” that Bernhardt could hope for.
And yet when Trump proposed a budget in March that would have drastically cut funding for parks, Bernhardt praised the president for “an effort to restore fiscal sanity in Washington.” Three months later, he was in Yosemite with Pence, calling on Congress to fund the $12 billion repair shortfall.
Nicole Gentile, who directs the public lands program at the Center for American Progress, analyzed the $12 billion claim by looking through the National Park Service’s own data, in what appears to be the most concerted effort to figure out if that number represented the true cost of making necessary fixes in national parks.
It did not, Gentile concluded. She found that only $1.3 billion “is serious enough for the agency to consider it a priority for necessary maintenance.” A full half of the money Bernhardt and others have claimed they need for parks — $5.9 billion —would go to the repair of highways that run through or along the parks, like the George Washington Parkway in northern Virginia.
Another $389 million, Gentile found, was intended for facilities used by concessionaires, who run recreation, hotels and food services in national parks. “The NPS backlog should be understood in context and not used to undercut conservation or bolster calls for privatization,” Gentile and co-author Matt Lee-Ashley concluded.
Goodwin, the Interior official, disputed any suggestion that the condition of national parks had been intentionally mischaracterized. “We stand by those estimates,” he said.
The sway of concessionaires is also concerning to advocates of keeping public lands public. Earlier this summer, concessions giant Delaware North settled its lawsuit over several Yosemite place names — the most famous of these being the Ahwahnee and Wawona hotels — which it claimed it owned. Yosemite can use those names again, but only after the federal government paid Delaware North $12 million in a court settlement.
The case was an unwelcome reminder of the business side of public land management, and how complex arrangements allow private interests to encroach on what appears to be public property.
It also raised questions anew about Delaware North’s political influence. The company’s owner, Jeremy Jacobs, is Trump’s most generous donor in the Buffalo, N.Y., area. And earlier this year, Delaware North hired Brownstein Hyatt, the lobbying firm for which Bernhardt previously worked.
“Private companies are profiting off national parks that belong to all Americans — and they’re too often reaping the benefits without absorbing the full costs associated with operations,” Gentile told Yahoo News, calling Delaware North “a particularly egregious example of how concessionaires can manipulate a public good into a major private-sector handout.”
While concessions are necessary even in the wilderness, a recent article in the Kentucky Law Review argued that their proliferation has become “detrimental” to enjoyment of those parks as originally envisioned. Goodwin asserted that Delaware North would continue to operate in national parks, declining to say whether the Yosemite brouhaha changed anything about the corporation’s standing as a partner with the federal government.
Jacobs also sits on an Interior committee devoted to recreation. The panel was set up by Bernhardt’s predecessor, Ryan Zinke, who said upon its creation that he wanted to “continue the exponential growth of the American recreation sector.” Members of the committee include the chief executives of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, a lobbying group, as well as Bass Pro Shops and Choice Hotels International.
David Vela, a senior National Park Service official, spoke during last Tuesday’s event about the need to “enhance recreation opportunities,” though he did not make exactly clear what he meant. Conservation groups like the Sierra Club have criticized Vela for approving off-road vehicle use near the Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida and the construction of a cellphone tower in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
Trump is not the first president to seek private help for public land. The last Republican president before him, George W. Bush, faced an outcry in response to similar efforts, which in part reflect conservatives’ trust of private enterprise over the federal government.
“The idea of the NPS reaching into the private sector to fulfill its mission is not new and aligns with its history,” Dan Puskar, chief executive officer of the Public Lands Alliance, told Yahoo News. He added that he hoped any “engagement” with the private sector would be done “thoughtfully.”
Trump’s detractors say there is little thoughtful about his approach to public land management. In 2017, for example, he reversed a six-year ban on selling plastic water bottles in public parks, a move that had saved some 2 million bottles from being used. The rollback had long been sought by the bottled-water lobby, but that effort had had little luck until Trump came along.
As for the maintenance shed at Acadia that left such an impression on Bernhardt, its fate remains unclear. “I can't confirm to which building the secretary was referring,” Acadia management assistant John Kelly told Yahoo News, “but he did visit the park earlier this year.”
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