Commentary: Trump is funding his Fourth of July stunt at expense of our national parks

(Patrick Semansky | AP) Protester Jim Girvan moves a Baby Trump balloon into position before Independence Day celebrations, Thursday, July 4, 2019, on the National Mall in Washington.

Celebrating Independence Day in a national park might be one of the most quintessentially American experiences. Nothing brings people together like national parks, and nothing unites us like our shared history. This is a time when people put politics aside and show our patriotism and love for our country. The National Mall, America's front yard, has played host to one of the biggest celebrations for decades.

I'm appalled that this year's event is tainted by an unnecessary stunt at the expense of exactly what we should be celebrating: our national parks.

The Trump administration is reportedly siphoning off almost $2.5 million from the national parks budget to help pay for its Independence Day event on the National Mall. This is almost certainly illegal and demands an official investigation into this unprecedented decision.

The administration is taking this money from visitor fees, a major funding source for park service and maintenance projects that lets Americans experience the national parks we all treasure. Doing this is a bad idea under any circumstance, but it's even worse at a time when parks are already facing a financial shortfall and an influx of visitors. Making matters even worse, parks face the prospect of massive cuts in the president's proposed budget.

Against the backdrop of the parks' nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog, it might seem that $2.5 million isn't very much money. But to a park, that money is everything.

For $2.5 million, the John F. Kennedy National Historic Site could rehabilitate its visitor center ($853,000); Olympic National Park could update electrical and telecommunications systems ($690,000); and Yosemite National Park could upgrade 26 campgrounds and the surrounding campground road ($877,000). Together, these projects cost less than the $2.5 million being spent on this spectacle. Not only that, every one of these projects directly contributes to the long-term health of the United States' national parks, which is the intent of these fees. Can the same be said for this ticketed and seemingly partisan event?

For 100 years, my organization has pushed the government to remember that national parks belong to all of us and must be preserved and protected for all to experience and enjoy. Every time a presidential administration or Congress has tried to cut funding or reduce protections for parks, we've been there to hold them accountable. This is no different.

Unfortunately, this is the second time in just seven months that this administration has taken park fees for shortsighted and frankly inappropriate purposes. During the longest-ever government shutdown, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt directed some parks to use fee money to keep their gates open. Those funds weren't enough to keep park resources and visitors safe, and Bernhardt knew it. The only reason for that decision was to quell the national outcry over the shutdown's impact on parks such as Joshua Tree National Park, where vandals literally cut down some of the namesake trees.

And now this. Once is bad judgment. Twice is a pattern. And as we have for a century, regardless of who is in power, we will stand up for national parks and the need to protect them.

Every American should be worried that parks are being called upon to make sacrifices for a short-term purpose - especially one that's little more than a public stunt.

I grew up visiting national parks and took my children to them. I still remember my first trip to the National Mall. But millions of Americans, not to mention the generations of Americans yet to come, haven't yet had the chance to experience our parks. We all have a responsibility and a part to play in making sure that parks are preserved and protected for those future generations.

Theresa Pierno is president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association.