Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ka-ching! National parks get only Trump change -- for now -- April 6, 2017 column


You’d have thought the National Park Service won the lottery.

The photos of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke holding an oversized check with Tyrone Brandyburg, superintendent of Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, looked like shots of a lucky lottery winner with a gazillion-dollar bonanza.   

But this check to the National Park Service was chump change – or Trump change -- $78,333.32.

That’s how much salary taxpayers have paid Trump since noon Jan. 20. To compare: Taxpayers have shelled out an estimated $10 million on Trump’s visits to Mar-a-Lago.

Candidate Trump vowed he wouldn’t accept a salary as president, but the Constitution requires a president to be paid. The framers thought compensation would keep the president independent and free of corruption.

Until now, only Herbert Hoover and John F. Kennedy gave their presidential salaries to charity.

Trump initially planned to make a splash by giving away his entire $400,000 salary at year’s end. But the White House changed course and staged the photo op Monday in the press briefing room.

Trump gave the first installment of his salary to the park service, nearly everybody’s favorite federal agency. The money will go towards repairing infrastructure, Zinke said. 

But the sum will hardly make a dent in the $229 million backlog in deferred maintenance on the 25 national battlefields. Overall, the park service has a backlog of $12 billion in deferred maintenance on more than 400 parks and historic sites around the country.

Trump’s budget proposes a cut of $1.5 billion, or 12 percent, from the Interior Department’s budget. It doesn’t specify how much will be cut from the park service.

So, Trump came across not as a generous benefactor to the park service but as a latter-day John D. Rockefeller, handing it a few shiny dimes.

Visits to national parks have been growing over the past decade to a record high of 330 million visits last year during the service’s centennial celebration.

Most park facilities were built in the early and mid-20th century and need updating or replacing. These include rest areas and visitor centers, wastewater treatment and electricity plants, staff quarters and campgrounds.

Congress has long preferred to create new parks rather than take care of existing ones, but addressing deferred maintenance may be a rare area of bipartisan cooperation in the fractured Congress.

Last year, Congress authorized an additional $90 million for non-transportation maintenance and an additional $28 million for roads and bridges in the parks, with funds rising every year for five years.  

That’s not nearly enough to tackle the enormous backlog, park service officials and fans say.

Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, introduced on March 28 the National Park Service Legacy Act, which would direct $50 million annually in 2018, 2019 and 2020 for deferred maintenance at the parks.

The Legacy Act would authorize increasingly larger sums until $500 million would be available annually from 2027 through 2047. Costs would be paid through revenues from government oil and natural gas royalties.

“Virginia ranks fifth in the list of states with the greatest need for maintenance, with a backlog of $800 million,” said Warner. Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia is a cosponsor.

Republican co-sponsors include Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who wants to help the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which has a $232 million maintenance backlog.

“The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of America’s greatest treasures and it has a tremendous economic impact on East Tennessee,” Alexander said.

The park service does have its critics.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on federal spending and oversight, has called out park service projects in Pennsylvania and Alaska as wasteful.

While congressional action is slow, there is something you can do: make a gift directly to the National Park Service, or, if you prefer, to your favorite national park. 

Shenandoah National Park has a $90 million maintenance backlog, for example, and Gulf Islands National Seashore has a $21 million maintenance backlog.

Your gift, like Trump’s, comes with a bonus. It’s tax deductible, if you’re among the 30 percent of taxpayers who itemize.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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