Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly has called seasonal employee housing in Yellowstone National Park, like this trailer, "unbefitting for Yellowstone or any park in the system." Credit: National Park Service

Since starting as superintendent of Yellowstone National Park in 2018, Cam Sholly has made it a priority to upgrade housing for employees. The dwellings for seasonal employees, he has said, are “dumps” and “unbefitting for Yellowstone or any park in the system.”

But the problems go beyond employee housing. With 1,500 buildings, 300 miles of paved roads, and more than 1,000 miles of hiking trails, Yellowstone has a backlog of deferred maintenance carrying a price tag of $585 million, according to the National Park Service.

Those stresses aren’t likely to find any relief under the current administration. In a proposed budget released by President Donald Trump earlier this week, the National Park Service would lose nearly $600 million in funding.

“It is difficult to summarize how damaging that would be for our national parks,” said John Garder, senior director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association. 

It could mean a reduction of about 952 full-time-equivalent staff across the Park Service. Quantified another way, parks that rely on seasonal employees could lose three four-month employees during peak season, Garder said. 

The proposed budget continues a trend of cuts to the National Park Service budget. Since 2011, parks nationwide have reduced staff by 16%. Over the same span, visitation to national parks has increased 17%, Garder said.

Yellowstone has lost 4% of its staff, while Grand Teton National Park has lost 10% in that same period, Garder said. Garder said he did not have numbers for Glacier National Park. Trump’s new budget would amount to a 7% loss to the operating budget of each park in the system, Garder said.

“Given record increases in visitation at those parks, it’s clear that that is insulting to the park superintendents, the rangers who steward our parks, and the gateway communities that rely on them for our economic well-being,” Garder said.

In addition to the proposed cuts to the National Park Service, the Trump budget also calls for a 97% cut in discretionary spending to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which would leave it with only $15 million in fiscal year 2021, down from almost $500 million in fiscal year 2020.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is itself funded by offshore drilling fees, feeds money to state grants and federal public lands acquisition projects. It was permanently reauthorized for the first time in 2019 as part of a sweeping public lands package heralded by all three members of Montana’s federal delegation.

Even with LWCF permanently reauthorized, Congress has to determine appropriations for the fund each year. LWCF is authorized to receive funding up to $900 million. Last year’s $495 million budget was the highest since 2003.

Both of Montana’s senators — Republican Steve Daines and Democrat Jon Tester — are members of the U.S.Senate Appropriations Committee, which makes decisions about federal program funding.

“I expect Congress will reject it,” Garder said of the cuts to parks. “But it’s unhelpful, to say the least, when the president proposes a vision for our parks that would set them back considerably from where it needs to be.”

The president’s budget is just a “blueprint,” according to Daines spokeswoman Julia Doyle. Congress generally does not approve the presidential budget in its entirety.

“Congress has the power of the purse and is the body that actually makes the decisions and funds the government,” Doyle said in an emailed statement. “Senator Daines will continue fighting for funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and other important Montana priorities, including the National Park Service, in the appropriations process.”

Doyle said Daines is pushing for full funding of LWCF.

“You may recall that last year, funding for LWCF in the Administration’s budget was also very low,” Doyle said. “That’s why Sen. Daines stressed the importance of strong funding for the program, and his disappointment for the low number coming out of the administration. Secretary [of the Interior David] Bernhardt agreed with the Senator and publicly stated the budget number is simply a starting point.”

“It is difficult to summarize how damaging that would be for our national parks.”  

John Garder, senior director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association

In a statement, Tester called Trump’s budget proposal “irresponsible” for not tackling wasteful spending and the national debt. 

“Instead, it funds tax cuts for the wealthy by slashing Medicare and health care for rural families, cutting rural infrastructure projects, and decimating our public lands and outdoor recreation economy,” Tester said. 

Rep. Greg Gianforte said in an emailed statement that “Congress will decide how much to spend and where.”

Brought to you by our members

Our independent reporting is paid for in part by more than 900 members who care about Montana nonprofit journalism.

Any amount makes a difference.
$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

“I’ll remain focused on putting Montana first and reining in out-of-control spending,” Gianforte said. “It’s critical that we balance the budget to stop saddling our kids and grandkids with today’s reckless spending, which is why I support amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget and not paying members of Congress when they don’t balance the budget.”

All three members of Montana’s congressional delegation have sponsored the Restore Our Parks Act, which would help address a nationwide $12 billion backlog of deferred maintenance by diverting a portion of rents and fees generated by mining and energy development on federal lands. The act would provide $6.5 billion over five years to address deferred maintenance at National Parks.

“Unless that bill passes, it will be very difficult for park superintendents to address repair needs that continue to build up each year,” Garder said. “Increasing visitor fees or any other funding sources are not sufficient to deal with the problem.”

Johnathan Hettinger

Johnathan Hettinger is a journalist based in Livingston. Originally from Central Illinois and a graduate of the University of Illinois, he has worked at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, the Livingston Enterprise and the (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Contact Johnathan at jhett93@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.