Interior Secretary Zinke Emphasizes Desire to Use Energy Revenues to Fix National Parks
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told a Senate Appropriations Committee that legislation to develop a public lands infrastructure fund from revenues from oil and gas development on federal lands was a “top priority” for the agency during a hearing on Thursday.
“The President has been very clear about his priorities and is keeping his promises to the American people,” Zinke told the Senate Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. “The budget supports one of those promises in a big way: rebuilding national parks infrastructure. It calls for the largest investment in the history of this country to public lands.”
Zinke was called to testify about the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) proposed budget for FY 2019. As a part of the $11.7 billion budget, DOI is looking to establish a Public Lands Infrastructure Fund (PLIF), which would dedicate 50 percent of revenues derived from energy production on federal lands that exceeds 2018 budget baseline estimates to addressing maintenance for national parks.
“I think as a Secretary, it’s a fair proposition that if you’re going to gain wealth through energy development—whether it’s oil and gas, or wind or solar on public lands, then you too should have an obligation to maintain and support those public lands in perpetuity,” Zinke said.
Zinke says the fund would provide up to $18 billion for maintenance and improvement projects of national parks, national wildlife refuges and Bureau of Indian Education funded schools over ten years. DOI’s current deferred maintenance backlog stands at $16 billion.
Projects in need of funding range from small repairs to those costing hundreds of millions of dollars. During questioning, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) pointed to fixes needed for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which total $215 million despite appropriations of just $20 million annually. The park was forced to close the Look Rock campground for five years due to a lack of funding to fix the water treatment facilities.
“These are big expenses and if we don’t do something extraordinary to deal with that it will never get done. Which is why I want to salute you and the administration for proposing that we take a tried and true principle which is use some of the money from royalties from energy exploration on federal lands and use it for an environmental purpose,” Alexander told Zinke.
Both the Senate and the House are working on legislation that would make the PLIF a reality. The National Park Restoration Act, which is being championed by Alexander and would make many of DOI’s proposals law, has bipartisan support in both chambers.
“If we have conservation groups, Republicans, Democrats, President Trump, you all behind it, what can you tell us about our chances for success with legislation to deal with deferred maintenance in National Parks?” Alexander asked Zinke.
“Our public land experience in this country is not a Republican, Democrat or independent issue, it’s an American issue. And there are certain things that should transcend partisanship,” replied Zinke.
Zinke also addressed concerns posed by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) about drilling in and around the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“I can assure you we’re going to follow NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] by the letter of the law. Skip no steps,” Zinke said. “There is no doubt—I was sued 6 times the first day I was in the office—there is no doubt I’m going to get sued multiple times any decision especially oil and gas, but we’re going to follow every regulation, policy, dot the I’s, cross the t’s. I will skip no steps in NEPA because I think the American public deserves it.”
Zinke was also asked about the administration’s decision to reduce the amount of land dedicated to the Bears Ears National Monument. The move came after President Trump signed an executive order in April 2017 which directed Zinke to review certain large-scale monument distinctions. While local officials, residents and tribal leaders applauded that decision, it has also been the subject of ire from many in the environmental community.
“Let me make it clear on Bears Ears. There are little, if any, oil and gas resources within the boundaries of Bears Ears. Oil and gas leasing activity was never part of the discussion,” Zinke told the committee. “The revised boundaries are still larger than Bryce Canyon and Zion [National Parks] combined.”
“The real action was opening up public land for public access and stop road closures, and making sure hunting and fishing can be enjoyed by everybody. That was the real action taken. There wasn’t one square inch of land that was removed from federal protection,” Zinke continued.
“I do listen to states, and when every member of the Utah delegation, both in the House and the Senate, and the Governor, and the state legislature all probably wanted it to be rescinded, it was the decision and recommendation to me that the borders be revised to protect the assets in there, the antiquities, which are absolutely true.”