Trump budget would create $18B fund for parks but allow sale of public lands, Interior Department cuts

(Erin Alberty | Tribune File Photo) Many Pools is a beautiful, family-friendly hike with little traffic and great educational value in Zion National Park. Photo taken March 10, 2017.

Washington • President Donald Trump’s spending plan proposes an $18 billion fund to help rebuild national parks and wildlife refuges and boost the Native American education system but also would deliver a severe cut to the Interior Department’s overall budget and add new authority to sell off some public lands.

Trump’s budget blueprint outlines a new program to raise money from oil and gas royalties and other federal revenue sources to tackle the maintenance backlog for national parks and other federal lands. That to-do list now stretches to $11.6 billion, and the administration proposes tackling it as part of its new initiative to rebuild crumbling roads, bridges, waterways and other public projects.

We need to rebuild our parks,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters. “Our parks are being loved to death.”

Zinke also said the government needs to focus on rebuilding and improving schools for Native Americans — a program that’s under the Interior Department — because there are 40,000 students who don’t have adequate facilities or resources.

The ... real heartache is the schools,” the secretary said.

But Interior’s proposed budget also raised concerns within the environmental community because of a large cut to overall spending that could result in the loss of more than 1,200 full-time employees at the National Park Service, impacting most of the park units.

Also tucked into the budget proposal is authority for federal agencies to sell public assets if the “sale would “optimize the taxpayer value for Federal assets,” such as the Washington and Baltimore Washington Parkways, two roadways near the nation’s capital operated as national park units.

While Zinke has been a staunch opponent of selling off public lands since he was a Montana congressman, the language would give broad power to sell public lands.

The Trump administration just landed a one-two punch on our national parks and public lands,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities. “The president’s infrastructure plan would facilitate the privatization of entire national parks, opening the door to an outright sell-off of America’s public lands.”

Interior Department press secretary Heather Swift said the budget plans are about swapping lands to make them more accessible, not about selling off public parcels.

“Reauthorizing this authority is important because it allows the department to acquire high-priority conservation areas without additional cost to taxpayers, essentially with land swaps,” Swift said. “This is important because, in part, it helps solve the ‘checkerboard’ problem, where we have public land completely surrounded by private land, making it, for all intents and purposes, totally inaccessible to the public. Additionally, the secretary has always been in support of land swaps and other tools to fix the checker boarding of public lands.”

Congress rarely passes budgets presented by the president, but the spending plans offer insight into the administration’s goals.

Zinke pitched the plan as part of Trump’s push to rebuild the country’s roads and bridges while also making them safer and providing better access for visitors to public lands. He said last year’s budget was focused on “resetting the pilot light” on the American energy sector while this year is about “rebuilding our parks.”

But Will Rogers, president of The Trust for Public Land, said the budget, in the end, doesn’t help the parks and other federal lands.

Over the past year, we have seen the Trump administration display a disturbing disregard for our environment and public lands,” Rogers said. “If enacted by Congress, the cuts and program eliminations proposed in the president’s budget released today would wreak havoc on our outdoor economy and the millions of jobs it supports in our local communities.”

The president’s budget also largely eliminates funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program that gets monies from drilling fees that are then used to buy up key swaths of private land for protection.

Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, had previously called that program a “slush fund,” and held up funding as he attempted to make significant changes in it.

While not addressing the LWCF cuts, Bishop said Monday that he would move to pass Trump’s plans, saying they are overdue.

The provisions within President Trump’s infrastructure proposal streamlining federal permitting are what will enable success on the ground and maximum return on investment for communities across the country,” Bishop said in a statement. “The president’s plan also includes bold ideas to invest in rural communities and spur water and power development with a look towards moving certain responsibilities back to the states where they ultimately belong.”