Las Vegas Sun

December 9, 2018

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Sun editorial:

Budget proposal’s prescription to heal national parks is a poison pill

Looking at one part of President Donald Trump’s budget, you might think his administration is riding to the rescue of the National Park Service.

But a broader view of the overall budget reveals something very different. The administration’s plans for our national parks threaten to tear them to pieces.

While Trump recommends spending $18.7 billion to fix a massive maintenance backlog, which would seem like a good idea, the problem is that all but $257 million of that funding would come from private industries that would be given access to the parks to use for commercial purposes — mainly oil and gas companies. More specifically, the funding would be derived from the government collecting a percentage of energy leasing receipts.

Worse yet, the Department of Interior would be given the prerogative to sell any public lands that “demonstrate an increase in value from the sale.” That means Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his staff could offer up acreage at their discretion if they think the government could make a buck off of it.

Rollbacks of regulations on oil and gas extraction add another layer of concern to the plan.

This is a red alert situation.

It brings to mind nightmarish images of Trump and Zinke selling off sliced-and-diced portions of the parks and public lands for fracking and oil drilling operations, turning quiet natural areas into noisy and dirty beehives of extraction work and truck traffic.

It simply cannot be allowed to happen. Nevada’s congressional delegates must fight it, and need to know that voters will hold them accountable if they allow the Trump administration to carry out its assault on our public lands.

This particularly applies to Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. As he increasingly sucks up to the president in hopes of winning his primary contest over Trump drone Danny Tarkanian, Heller should be aware that Nevadans expect him to draw the line and protect our lands, political consequences be damned.

Another key reason to oppose Trump and Zinke on the issue is that the budget calls for massive cutbacks in staffing — 1,835 National Parks Service employees, 1,209 from the U.S. Geological Survey, 559 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and 330 from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

That’s a heavy human cost. And in the case of the parks employees, you’ll feel their loss if you go to a park. Visitation is at its highest level ever, so staffing cutbacks would mean fewer people providing services to ever-expanding crowds.

If that’s not enough, a news item published last week about Zinke and the Trump administration gave Americans more reason to question their motives. The story, published by Mother Jones magazine, said two U.S. Geological Survey employees had resigned in protest of a request by the administration for unpublished data from a study of oil and gas deposits in Alaska, a break from longstanding ethics practices.

The story was troubling because the report contains economic data that would be valuable for inside trading — it literally has the potential to move markets. For that reason, USGS guidelines call for the information not to be shared with anyone, including members of Congress and other federal and state officials, before it’s released to the public.

Interior administrators claimed they had legal authority to see the data, and there’s been no evidence that they used it for improper purposes. But it’s a curious situation that bears watching.

As for Trump’s budget, it’s worth pointing out that it’s merely a proposal to Congress. The budget already has been widely ridiculed, given that it would add $7 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years if adopted, so it’s unlikely that Congress will pass it.

But it does offer a look at how the administration is thinking about the parks system, and more importantly what Trump’s special-interest controllers are demanding from him.

Also, lawmakers have the option of adopting portions of it, so there’s reason to be concerned for the parks and public lands.

The parks service needs help, no doubt. It’s facing an $11.6 billion backlog of maintenance on its roads, visitor facilities and other infrastructure.

But the Trump plan is no way to go about making the fixes.

It’s reminiscent of a quote attributed to a U.S. military officer about the Vietnam War battle in the provincial capital of Ben Tre: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”