Congress in the dark on agency’s emerging endowment bill

By Corbin Hiar | 03/19/2015 07:27 AM EDT

Lawmakers appear to be leaving the drafting of legislation to establish a National Park Service endowment up to the agency officials, according to interviews with House and Senate natural resources leaders yesterday.

"We haven’t actually sat down and talked about his new fund specifically," said House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), referring to NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis.

Bishop said that he hadn’t yet met personally with Jarvis since taking over the committee, which has jurisdiction over parks legislation, at the start of this year. But the chairman noted that "it was probably more my fault than his."


In a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing earlier this week, Jarvis revealed that his nearly 100-year-old agency is planning to propose the establishment of an endowment that could raise money and help address some lingering problems as NPS enters its second century (E&E Daily, March 18).

"There is interest up here both in the Senate and in the House of some sort of authorizing package that could do a number of things for the centennial," he told E&E Daily after the hearing.

But when Bishop was asked yesterday if he supported the concept of an endowment for NPS, he initially offered a very hesitant response.

"Yes and no," he said. "How much of the fence do you want me to straddle right here?"

Eventually, Bishop concluded that, "Yeah, there are things we should do for the centennial."

The chairman, however, still has concerns about the forthcoming NPS proposal.

"I want to make sure that the money — unlike past efforts — goes to improving the experience people have, the experience on the ground, the [maintenance] backlog and not to hiring more staff," he said. "There is a rational way of doing this, so work with us."

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also does not appear to be taking an active role in shaping the fund.

"We have not engaged yet on this issue," spokesman Robert Dillon said. "It’s something that certainly we have raised. But it is not something that is in legislative text or anything, or that we have had discussions with them about," he added.

At the same time, however, Murkowski is generally supportive of allowing NPS to raise money from outside the appropriations process.

"It’s an idea that’s worth pursuing," Dillon said. "In order for there to be a Park Service in the 21st century, they need to do a better job of engaging with the private sector."

A top concern of Murkowski’s for the future of the agency is its more than $11 billion maintenance backlog, which the endowment could potentially alleviate.

"If there is funding available from the private sector, that certainly helps accelerate resolving the backlog and maintaining the treasures we have," her spokesman said.

NPS floats revenue-raising proposals

During Tuesday’s appropriations hearing, Jarvis offered a few hints of what NPS may present to Congress.

Similar to university endowments, the NPS fund could be supported by small donations, estate bequests or large contributions from the hundreds of millions of annual national park visitors, who Jarvis referred to as "a very large base of alumni."

Jarvis also suggested that revenue could also come from increasing the price of the lifetime Golden Age Pass, which people aged 62 or older can buy for $10. If the all-entry pass was increased to match the $80 cost of the annual America the Beautiful park pass, the additional income generated by the new price could go into the endowment.

"The other thing we’ve talked about is our fee program," he said. If those dollars were put into interest-bearing accounts, they could slowly increase the endowment over the years.

Finally, NPS is considering reworking concession contracts to promote infrastructure investments and increase the agency’s return on those deals, Jarvis said.

The director added that he hopes to unveil the bill sometime in the next three months.

Reporter Daniel Bush contributed.