The head of a House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Interior Department threatened to investigate the use of National Park Service entrance fee funds to pay for a July 4 celebration on the National Mall.
House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) questioned Interior’s spending $2.5 million in park entrance fees on President Donald Trump’s July 4 “Salute to America” event on the National Mall, which will display heavy military tanks and have a ticketed viewing area for White House guests.
The Interior Department declined to confirm the $2.5 million figure, but spokeswoman Molly Block said via email July 3: “The Department of the Interior is committed to providing the American people a fantastic celebration of our nation’s birthday. We are doing so consistent with the Department’s mission and historical practices.”
Entrance fees at the national parks are used to enhance visitors’ experiences at more than 400 park service sites, including funding deferred maintenance projects. Eighty percent of the fees stay in each park, and the rest is used to fund projects in parks that do not charge entrance fees.
The agency is expected to collect about $310 million in entrance fees in 2019, according to the National Parks Conservation Association, a nongovernmental advocacy organization.
The agency’s total deferred maintenance backlog stood at $11.9 billion as of September 2018, including $654.9 million for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, according to the park service’s September 2018 list of deferred maintenance needs.
What Fees Could Help
“It is unbelievable that Congress—specifically the Appropriations Committee—was not informed of this use of taxpayer dollars before it was reported publicly,” McCollum said in a statement.
“Mr. Trump’s event is on federal grounds. The National Mall belongs to all of us. I’m prepared to use my full oversight authority,” she wrote, “to determine how this decision was made and hold the responsible parties accountable.”
Staff for subcommittee ranking member Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) didn’t respond to requests for comment July 3.
The Trump administration has long advocated for ways to reduce the roughly $12 billion maintenance backlog at national parks. Vice President Mike Pence on June 13 called for Congress to pass bipartisan legislation (S.500 and H.R.1225) that would use royalty money from oil and gas leasing on federal lands to pay for maintenance at parks and other public lands.
Congressional Democrats previously questioned the park service’s use of fee dollars to keep about 100 parks open during the 35-day federal government shutdown early in the year, costing the agency $6 million per week.
‘Not a Slush Fund’
“These fees are not a slush fund for this administration to use at will,” McCollum said. “They are meant to improve our national parks, keep them safe and protected for Americans to enjoy, and are clearly not to be used for a political rally.”
The money McCollum said the park service is spending on “Salute to America” would more than pay for the $2.22 million in deferred maintenance needs at Ford’s Theater National Historic Site in Washington, D.C., according to the park service documents.
Emily Douce, director of operations and park funding for the National Parks Conservation Association, said $2.5 million doesn’t sound like much in the context of the overall maintenance backlog and entrance fees the park service collects annually, but it could pay for critical infrastructure projects in popular parks.
“While the administration has said they are supportive in trying to find ways to address deferred maintenance issues, it’s ironic that they’re pulling fee dollars that are slated to primarily go toward deferred maintenance to pay for this added event,” Douce said.
It is unclear whether the park service is obtaining the $2.5 million from fees generated from visitor parking meters on the National Mall itself, or from the 20% of the agency’s deferred maintenance funding that comes from all parks that charge fees, Douce said.
“We are trying to find answers ourselves,” she said.