Although other environmental agencies face big cuts as Republicans seek to chop government spending, the National Park Service may be the rare exception that avoids a large drop.
Some fiscal conservatives are even making the agency a top funding priority. Wyoming's lone representative said she wants the service to look its best when it celebrates its 100th birthday in 2016.
To that end, GOP Rep. Cynthia Lummis, a member of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NPS, said her first concern for fiscal 2012 is maintaining level funding for the agency's operations budget, which ensures adequate staffing, visitors services and routine maintenance across nearly 400 units.
That request ranked first among roughly 30 funding priorities she submitted last month to the Interior, Forest Service and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee.
"I chose that as my number one priority because the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service is coming up and I think it's important that we make sure our national parks are presented on their centennial to the public in a way that not only makes people proud of our national parks but also recognizes the importance of continuing to protect and utilize those national parks in the way they were intended," Lummis told E&E Daily.
The second-term congresswoman, whose state includes Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, both of which rank among the top 10 most visited, said she also worries about the agency's $10.8 billion in deferred maintenance projects and is afraid many of those projects will not be finished by 2016.
The Obama administration's budget request for 2012 would cut $77 million from construction, not nearly enough to slow the agency's growing maintenance backlog.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the subcommittee, said earlier this year that he also has serious concerns with the suggested drop in construction funding, particularly as the agency requests a significant increase in land acquisition to fulfill Obama's Great Outdoors initiative.
But Simpson last week said he believes the Park Service's operations budget could escape some of the largest cuts in the House's 2012 budget, which will likely force him to trim $2.1 billion from the Interior and U.S. EPA bill.
"They're going to get hit like everyone else," he said of the Park Service budget. "Maybe not as much, but that's just the way it is."
Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, said it was too early to tell which, if any, Interior agency programs would be spared in the committee's draft bill, which is targeted for a mid-June release and a July 6 subcommittee markup.
"I think Mike Simpson and I can agree, and probably the subcommittee," Moran said. "The problem is what the subcommittee is instructed to do from the leadership in terms of the 302(b) allocation," which determines what each Appropriations subcommittee can spend on its respective agencies.
John Garder, budget and appropriations legislative representative for the National Parks Conservation Association, said while he would like to see the agency's operations shortfall reduced, he would be happy with level funding.
"What we're concerned about is we don't want ... national parks to go back to where they were a few years ago when people weren't seeing park rangers once they got past the entrance gate, when bathrooms and other facilities weren't being maintained," he said.
Garder noted lawmakers have worked across party lines to fund the parks in recent years.
"There was a bipartisan agreement a few years ago that national parks were in trouble," Garder said. In response, lawmakers launched a multi-year effort to restore about $100 million annually so the operations shortfall could be eliminated by the agency's centennial, he said.
The plan yielded increases over the past two years of the George W. Bush administration and carried over into the Obama administration, he said. But the agency suffered roughly $130 million in cuts as a result of April's stopgap continuing resolution, he said.
"Currently national parks are doing better than they were a few years ago but are still operating with $600 million less than they need to meet visitors' services and to protect resources," Garder said.
Such shortfalls mean the agency sacrifices services like seasonal rangers to assist visitors in planning hikes as well as wildlife studies and protections for historical canons, archaeological resources and other historic relics, he said. Schools that request interpretive tours of historic battlefields for student trips, for example, may be turned down if park units do not have adequate staff, he added.
Park Service Director Jon Jarvis in March defended the agency's overall request of $2.9 billion, or $138 million above 2010 funding levels, before Simpson's subcommittee.
The agency request includes a $73 million increase for operations, which Jarvis called the "bread and butter" of the agency's services to its 285 million annual visitors (E&E Daily, March 1).
The budget also proposes eliminating funding for the Save America's Treasures and Preserve America grants and the Park Partnership Projects program, cuts that drew concern from some Democratic members on the panel.
The agency's land acquisition request -- a $234 million increase over 2010 levels -- is less likely to win support in the House. Simpson told E&E Daily that he expects lawmakers to shift some of the agency's requested acquisition funding to maintenance needs.