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Big spending boost may be too little for national parks’ needs

Experts contend catastrophic flooding at Yellowstone is a sign of climate disasters to come

In this photo provided by the National Park Service, the Yellowstone National Park's North Entrance Road is washed out after flooding on June 16.
In this photo provided by the National Park Service, the Yellowstone National Park's North Entrance Road is washed out after flooding on June 16. (Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service via Getty Images file photo)

Even as the House Appropriations Committee is proposing to offer a multimillion-dollar boost for national parks and federal land, the recent catastrophic flooding at Yellowstone National Park shows the increase may not be enough.

The House Appropriations Committee on June 29 approved a $44.8 billion fiscal 2023 spending bill that would boost spending for environmental, public lands and tribal programs within the Interior Department by $6.8 billion, or 18 percent. Included in the bill was a 15 percent increase for public lands administered by agencies including the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management.

While part of a yearslong push to increase funding as the agencies struggle with maintenance backlogs, the funding comes weeks after a catastrophic flood – so severe that scientists would expect one like it to occur just once every 1,000 years – forced the closure of Yellowstone National Park, which drew nearly 5 million visitors last year.

“Just weeks ago, we witnessed Yellowstone, America’s first national park, experience devastating flooding that triggered mudslides, resulting in its emergency closure and leaving damage that will take years to rebuild,” Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said at the bill’s markup. “This tragedy underscored how vulnerable our ecosystems and species are to the impacts of climate change.”

In 2020, President Donald Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act, which permanently authorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million per year. But while its passage was heralded as a bipartisan success, John Garder, director of budget and appropriations at the National Park Conservation Alliance, said it is “helping stem the tide a little bit, but certainly not enough.”

‘Not enough’

“Even prior to Yellowstone the Park Service has been struggling with infrastructure challenges and the Great American Outdoors Act while an incredible success will, it’s quite clear at this point, not be enough to address all of the Park Service’s deferred maintenance backlog,” said Garder.

Even as the federal government works to reduce its public lands maintenance backlog, federal land agencies are expected to experience more severe wildfires, hurricanes, flooding and other natural disasters due to climate change. Yellowstone has seen reduced snowpack in recent years, heightening the risk of severe wildfires.  

Recognizing this, the bipartisan infrastructure law included $1.7 billion to improve transportation infrastructure and support climate adaptations. However Garder estimates that the response to the Yellowstone flooding alone may run over a billion dollars on its own, which could require Congress to consider a supplemental appropriations measure specifically for the park and other disasters on public lands this year.

Some in Congress have also raised concerns about inadequate funding. In February Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., said that Congress should increase the authorization levels for the LWCF, noting that the $900 million figure has not been increased since 1978.

At the subcommittee markup of the bill Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., expressed concern that there was not enough money to fund resiliency programs on federal lands, speculating that once the situation at Yellowstone is assessed the federal government will determine more could have been done to minimize the damage. She noted that other parks, such as Voyageurs National Park in her home state, are facing similar challenges as the risks of climate change increase.

“We need to start looking seriously at working, Madam Chair, to get you more increases to build some of the infrastructure on our treasured public lands and public parks because it’s only going to cost us more money in the long run not to fix the problem when we see it right away,” said McCollum.

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