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Opinion: When Trump Dreams About Our National Parks, He Sees Oil

‘America’s best idea’ deserves better than drill-everywhere schemes

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, named after the president who expanded the National Park Service, could be open to oil and gas exploitation if a Trump administration proposal that incentivizes more drilling on public lands gains traction. (Courtesy Eddy23/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, named after the president who expanded the National Park Service, could be open to oil and gas exploitation if a Trump administration proposal that incentivizes more drilling on public lands gains traction. (Courtesy Eddy23/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

For most Americans, the mention of national parks brings to mind the scenic vistas of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite Valley or contemplative memorials like the Statue of Liberty and Pearl Harbor. Few people think of the tremendous amount of infrastructure — from roads and bridges to visitors centers and sewer systems — that supports 330 million annual visitors and $34.9 billion in annual economic output.   

The National Park Service manages a broad network that requires routine repairs, rehabilitation and maintenance. Due to chronic underfunding and the age of our iconic parks, much of the infrastructure that supports park visitation needs serious upkeep.

Fortunately, there is bipartisan agreement in Congress that we need a dedicated funding stream to address the more than $11.6 billion in deferred maintenance projects at our national parks. The bad news is that the Trump administration, which wants to eliminate nearly 2,000 ranger and park professional positions, would rather scapegoat important conservation priorities and shortchange park operations in favor of expanded oil and gas drilling on public lands.

The administration plans to eliminate the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a broadly popular program that, for the past 53 years, has reinvested a small portion of revenue derived from offshore oil and gas development to protect open space and promote outdoor recreation opportunities. The program will expire Sept. 30 unless Congress reauthorizes it.

Trump officials want to replace it with a program that incentivizes more drilling on public lands, arguing that the increased revenue would be invested in national parks. Proponents make this plan sound like a simple expansion. They don’t mention the major differences or their huge implications.

The LWCF is funded with the first $900 million raised in offshore drilling revenues each year, a small fraction of the $7 billion total raised on average.

As long as at least $900 million is raised, the conservation fund receives its full share — or would if Congress agreed to use that money for its intended purpose. It has rarely done that, leaving the program with an authorized but unspent balance of $18 billion.

The administration’s proposal, on the other hand, as embodied by the “National Park Restoration Act” currently being debated by Congress, relies on taking money from energy development above and beyond what we already expect to receive. There are only three ways to generate this extra money. Two of them — pray for higher oil and gas prices or charge companies more in royalties — are either out of this administration’s hands or out of its character. The third — develop more oil, gas and coal in new and unexpected places — is the essence of Trump’s energy policy. The administration proposes to hold the upkeep of our parks hostage to acceptance of its drill-everywhere “energy dominance” schemes.

Whatever money this effort raises each year would be spent automatically, which sounds appealing until you realize lawmakers would use it as an excuse not to spend money on the LWCF, which is not mandatory. It’s unclear exactly how much this plan would even raise, since the last two lease sales the Department of the Interior held generated 43 percent less than the administration’s publicly stated expectation. Presumably these two sales will generate no funding for parks. Tying the future of our national parks to factors beyond our control is a recipe for failure.

The administration’s “plan” incentivizes DOI to manage public lands to maximize revenue rather than balance multiple uses. Trump officials will argue that more of our oceans and public lands need to be open for drilling to maximize revenues, but it’s important to remember that no matter how much property they “open up,” industry decisions and the market price of oil will dictate the amount parks receive. It’s entirely possible that the administration’s proposal would lead to widespread energy development without any new money going to parks.

None of these shenanigans are necessary. Republicans have controlled the House of Representatives for nearly a decade. Just two years after the National Park Service celebrated its 100th anniversary, they refuse to invest in what’s been called America’s best idea.

Republicans are willing to push aside concerns about a balanced budget and the national deficit to advance special-interest tax cuts, but when it comes to finding money for parks and public lands, they aren’t interested in real solutions. Park funding shouldn’t require a budget gimmick or accounting trick; it should be treated as a straightforward investment in the future of our shared heritage.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, has been a member of Congress since 2003. He has served as ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee since 2015.

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