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Competing Forces in the National Park Service: Budget Woes and the Legal Ramifications

By David Treadaway*

On November 10, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the National Parks and Recreation Act (NPRA) into law.[i] President Carter stated that the “this new law reaffirms our Nation’s commitment to the preservation of our heritage, a commitment which strives to improve the quality of the present by our dedication to preserving the past and conserving our historical and natural resources.”[ii] Today however, budget cuts to the Department of the Interior and National Park Service (NPS) threaten to undermine the goals of such legislation.[iii] Without additional funding, America’s National Parks will inevitably suffer continued effects of overcrowding and failing infrastructure. Not only that – without funding, the NPS is forced to operate under a scheme contrary to what is mandated in the NPRA.

The NPRA established fifteen new units in the National Park System, designated almost 2 million more acres in eight National Parks as wilderness, authorized 725 million dollars for facility renovations, established eight new rivers as part of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, and designated seventeen new rivers for possible future inclusion.[iv] But equally important, the act also introduced a provision requiring the National Park System to develop general management plans.[v] These general management plans were to be prepared and revised by the Director of the NPS and the Secretary, and submitted to Congress on January 1 of each year.[vi] The plans were to contain a list indicating the current status of each unit of the National Park System. Items to be addressed included: “(1) measures for the preservation of the area’s resources; (2) indications of types and intensities of development … associated with public enjoyment of the area; (3) identification of and implementation commitments for visitor carrying capacities; and (4) indication of potential modifications to the external boundaries of the unit.”[vii]

In May of 2000, Congress terminated the requirement that general management plan reports be submitted annually. The NPRA, however, still requires that each unit develop general management plans “in a timely manner”.[viii] In such plans, park managers must still address the four items listed to effectuate the vision President Carter shared when signing the act into law. It was clear in 1978 that general management plans were developed to address the stresses of aging parks; yet without congressional oversight, National Parks are unlikely to develop general management plans that can fully address pressing needs.

National parks are quickly becoming overburdened with visitors.[ix] Each of the top ten visited national parks saw increases from 2015 to 2016.[x] This sort of trend suggests that detrimental effects from massively over estimated carrying capacities are imminent if not already occurring.[xi] One spokesman for Zion remarked, “this huge uptick in visitation has overwhelmed our infrastructure facilities, our trails, our backcountry… We have to come up with some kind of management plan.”[xii] Natural resource management as well as daily operational expenses are growing each year as visitation rates increase.[xiii]

Unfortunately, recent budget cuts to the Department of the Interior have severely limited the flexibility of park managers to address these issues.[xiv] The deferred maintenance backlog for the National Park Service through the 2016 fiscal year is estimated to be $11.332 billion.[xv] In 2016, the Obama administration proposed a $250 million increase in discretionary funding to address the maintenance backlog.[xvi] The Trump administration has further proposed cutting these funds by an additional $296 million.[xvii] Further, the Trump administration has threatened to exacerbate the budgetary issues of the NPS by proposing an additional fifteen percent funding reduction in 2019.[xviii]

Although President Trump and Department of the Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, have touted that the proposed budget includes accompanying legislation in order to address lacking infrastructure and maintenance – their promises do not address how the appropriations will be able to compensate for such a drastically decreased budget.[xix] The NPS has additionally proposed increases in entrance fees in order to address maintenance concerns.[xx] There are concerns however that the increase in fees will not only limit working class peoples’ access to national parks, but will also reduce the NPS’s reliance on congressional assistance leading to increased opportunity for privatization of the parks.[xxi]

Without a funding schedule that addresses the backlog of maintenance concerns coupled with congressional oversight to provide adequate checks so as to maximize the funds’ efficiency – the NPS will be left without the resources to satisfy their legally mandated obligations outlined in the NPRA. And once legally mandated provisions of the governing acts for the NPS are eroded – so too will be the purposes for which President Roosevelt founded the National Park System over 100 years ago and which President Carter reinforced in 1978 with the passage of the NPRA.

David Treadaway is a Junior Editor on MJEAL. He can be reached via email at

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.
[i] National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, Pub. L. No. 95-625, 92 Stat. 3467 (codified in scattered sections of 16 U.S.C).

[ii] Jimmy Carter, President, National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 Statement on Signing S. 791 Into Law (Nov. 10, 1978).

[iii] See Press Release, National Parks Conservation Association, Budget Proposal Threatens National Parks (Mar. 16, 2017),

[iv] Supra note 1.

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id.

[ix] See Julie Turkewitz, National Parks Struggle with Mounting Crisis: Too Many Visitors, N.Y. Times (Sept. 27, 2017)

[x] Annual Visitation Highlights, National Park Service (2017)

[xi] See Kirk Siegler, Long Lines, Packed Campsites And Busy Trails: Our Crowded National Parks, NPR (Mar. 7, 2016)

[xii] Jim Robbins, How A Surge in Visitors Is Overwhelming America’s National Parks, Yale Environment 360 (Jul. 31, 2017)

[xiii] Norma P. Nickerson, Montana’s Crowded Parks: Record Visitation is Taking its Toll, 55 Mont. Bus. Quarterly 10, 12 (2017).

[xiv] See Supra note 3.

[xv] Cong. Research Serv., R44924, The National Park Service’s Maintenance Backlog: Frequently Asked Questions 1 (2017).

[xvi] U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service Budget Justifications and Performance Information: Fiscal Year 2017 (2016).

[xvii] U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service Budget Justifications and Performance Information: Fiscal Year 2018 (2017).

[xviii] What Trump proposed cutting in his 2019 budget, Wash. Post, Feb 16, 2018.

[xix] See generally Press Release, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, President’s $11.7 Billion Proposed FY 2019 Budget for Interior Includes Legislation to Strengthen Infrastructure and Address Deferred Maintenance (Feb. 2, 2018), (only addresses the effect of funding on deferred maintenance but is silent on the issue of a lower departmental budget generally).

[xx] National Park Service Proposes Targeted Fee Increases at Parks to Address Maintenance Backlog, National Park Service (2017)

[xxi] See Jimmy Tobias, Why Ryan Zinke’s plan to raise entrance fees to national parks will do little to actually benefit national parks, Pacific Standard (Nov. 13, 2017)

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