National Park Service to use park improvement funds to pay for Trump July 4th event: Report

Money from entrance fees is typically used for improvements in national parks.

July 3, 2019, 3:10 PM

The National Park Service reportedly will use money intended to improve parks to pay for the amped up Fourth of July event in Washington, a move Democrats and advocacy groups say is a misuse of public funds.

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday night that the National Park Service will divert $2.5 million in money from entrance fees intended for maintenance to pay for the Salute to America events on Thursday.

ABC News has not independently confirmed the report. The National Park Service and Interior Department did not respond to questions about the use of fees, though the park service said the spending for the event will follow Interior Department policies.

"The Department of the Interior is committed to providing the American people a fantastic celebration of our nation’s birthday. We are doing so consistent with the Department’s mission and historical practices. We hope everyone enjoys the Fourth," NPS spokesman Jeremy Barnum said in a statement.

Mounted US Park Police pass by an armored Bradley Fighting Vehicle near the Lincoln Memorial as preparations continue for Independence Day celebrations on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., July 3, 2019.
Erik S Lesser/EPA/Shutterstock

The Interior Department, National Park Service, Department of Defense and White House have declined to give any numbers or estimates for the cost of the event, which is expected to be higher than previous years because of the president's "Salute to America" event and military flyovers of the National Mall.

During the government shutdown earlier this year and amid concern the national parks were being damaged by unsupervised visitors, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt authorized parks to use money from entrance and recreation fees to bring back staff and maintain basic services. The congressional watchdog the Government Accountability Office is reviewing that decision.

It's unclear if that authorization also allows the spending for the Fourth of July event.

Two Bradley Fighting Vehicles are parked nearby the Lincoln Memorial for President Donald Trump's 'Salute to America' event honoring service branches on Independence Day, July 2, 2019, in Washington D.C.
Andrew Harnik/AP

Groups including the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonpartisan group that advocates to protect and improve national parks, said that using money from fees for the event is a misuse of money given by the public to improve national parks around the country.

"Two and a half million dollars might not seem like a lot to this administration, but to a national park it's everything. Fee dollars are meant to protect our parks irreplaceable resources and enhance visitors’ experiences, not fund a Presidential stunt," the group's CEO Theresa Pierno said in a statement.

"The Park Service is already operating on a shoestring budget, and park staff have come to heavily rely on visitor fee dollars to fund law enforcement personnel, create educational programs for visitors, and address the nearly $12 billion in needed repairs for crumbling park buildings, trails and roads."

The service collected almost $300 million in revenue from entrance and recreation fees in fiscal year 2018, according to an Interior Department memo, but those fees are meant to be used to improve the visitor experience in parks, mostly through maintenance of existing buildings and roads. At least 80% of the money is supposed to be used in the same park where it is collected, but the National Mall does not collect entrance fees.

The National Park Service has an almost $12 billion backlog of maintenance needs around the country, some threatening crucial infrastructure in the parks. Republicans and the Trump administration have been pushing legislation and efforts to direct more money to that work, but I expect members of Congress will argue moves like this put those efforts in jeopardy.

A jogger runs past the Lincoln Memorial ahead of the "July 4th Salute to America" celebration, July 2, 2019, in Washington, D.C.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Some members of Congress have already blasted the decision and specifically the fact that lawmakers with oversight of the Interior Department and National Park Service budget were not told about the decision. Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum, chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee that handles Interior's budget, said fees are not "a slush fund for this administration to use at will."

"It is unbelievable that Congress -- specifically the Appropriations Committee -- was not informed of this use of taxpayer dollars before it was reported publicly. Mr. Trump’s event is on federal grounds. The National Mall belongs to all of us. I’m prepared to use my full oversight authority as Chair of the Interior-Environment Appropriations Committee to determine how this decision was made and hold the responsible parties accountable. This administration needs to be reminded that the power of the purse belongs to Congress," McCollum said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for McCollum said the Appropriations Committee has reached out to the department for confirmation but had not been told of a decision to tap into fees to pay for the event as of Wednesday afternoon.

Sen. Tom Udall, ranking member on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, formally asked Interior to provide information on the cost of the event. As of Tuesday night his office said they weren't told anything about this decision.

ABC News' John Parkinson contributed to this report.

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