WASHINGTON — Ahead of Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said to expect “big news” from President Donald Trump on infrastructure and national parks.
“Stand by in the State of the Union: We’re going to rebuild our parks. Here it comes,” Zinke reportedly said last week on “The David Webb Show” on SiriusXM.
Instead, Trump gave the American public more vague plans about rebuilding the nation’s “crumbling” roads, bridges and railways. Those hoping for an announcement specific to national parks will have to wait, as the president did not mention them.
To the disgust of Democrats and conservationists, Trump’s 2018 budget request called for slashing the National Park Service’s funding by nearly 13 percent. Then in October, the administration turned around and proposed drastically hiking entrance fees at 17 of America’s most popular national parks, including Yellowstone, Yosemite and Glacier. The move, NPS said, “would generate badly needed revenue for improvements to the aging infrastructure of national parks.”
“We need to have the vision to look at the future of our parks and take action in order to ensure that our grandkids’ grandkids will have the same if not better experience than we have today,” Zinke said at the time. “Shoring up our parks’ aging infrastructure will do that.”
Zinke ― whose job it is to manage about 500 million acres of federal land, including the 59 national parks — has repeatedly vowed to address the park system’s estimated $12 billion maintenance backlog. NPS estimates that the proposed fee hikes would generate $70 million in additional revenue per year, or about 0.6 percent of the backlog.
In April, Trump donated $78,333.32, a portion of his salary, to NPS, which Zinke said at the time would go toward improving maintenance of the nation’s battlefields.
In his 80 minute address — the third-longest State of the Union in history — Trump found no time for national parks. Instead, he spoke generally about rebuilding the nation as a whole.
“I am asking both parties to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable and modern infrastructure that our economy needs and our people deserve,” he said. Trump added that he will push Congress to approve a $1.5 trillion plan.
“We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways all across our land,” Trump said. “And we will do it with American heart, American hands and American grit.”
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, told E&E News not to read into what was absent from Trump’s comments on infrastructure.
“While he didn’t specifically call out national parks tonight, I can tell you for certain, because we’re working with the White House and Secretary Zinke, it’s one of his highest priorities,” Daines said.
Critics view the White House infrastructure plans as a threat to America’s beloved parks and other public lands. To simplify and fast-track his rebuilding efforts, Trump is expected to gut environmental protections. A leaked draft obtained by The Washington Post indicates the administration will scale back environmental requirements in order to make it easier to construct pipelines, roads and bridges.
“National parks do not exist in a vacuum,” Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement following Trump’s speech Tuesday. “Caring for our parks means not only fixing their roads and buildings, but also protecting their air, water, wildlife and lands. And yet, reports on the infrastructure proposal indicate the administration intends to dismantle bedrock conservation laws in the name of rebuilding.”
During the brief government shutdown earlier this month, the Trump administration opted to keep many national parks, monuments and memorials open —albeit without rangers, restrooms and other visitor services. It was a decision that Jon Jarvis, the former NPS director, called “incredibly idiotic,” as it put visitors and natural and cultural resources at risk.