Park Work

Cars line up to enter at the south entrance to the Grand Canyon. As the park enters its busy season, some seasonal workers say they are being turned away because of a new Park Service rule. (Photo courtesy Grand Canyon National Park)

WASHINGTON – The Trump Administration violated federal law when it diverted funds for national park improvements toward keeping places like Grand Canyon National Park open during the last government shutdown, the Government Accountability Office said Thursday.

The 17-page legal opinion claims the Interior Department’s decision to use park maintenance fees for day-to-day services – including bathroom cleanup, trash collection and security – showed “a misunderstanding and misapplication” of the law and “tears at the very fabric of Congress’s constitutional power of the purse.”

Administration officials Friday pushed back against the “absurd and heartless” GAO finding, noting that they were scrambling to keep parks open during the 35-day federal government shutdown, the longest in history.

“At the direction of the president, the administration made the partial lapse in appropriations as painless as possible,” Jacob Wood, a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, said in an emailed statement.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, one of six Democrats who asked the GAO to look into the fund diversion, said that does not give administration officials a pass to do whatever they want.

“Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and his advisors consider federal laws a nuisance, not a set of standards,” Grijalva said in a statement. “Nothing is safe from the administration’s demands – not our environment, not our way of life, and certainly not the intent of Congress.”

The GAO findings centered on a Jan. 5 memo from Bernhardt to the National Park Service deputy director directing the agency to use locally collected park fees, meant for maintenance, for certain daily services “until such funds have reached a zero balance.” Bernhardt said the department would repay the funds once the government reopened.

The move allowed parks to open on a limited basis, without rangers or programs or anyone to collect admission fees but with basic services such as toilets and security.

No admission numbers were kept, but the number of visitors to the Grand Canyon appeared to be up during the December-to-January shutdown, based on the amount of trash taken out and toilet paper taken in, according to numbers from the Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce.

The GAO said it gave Interior an opportunity to respond to its explain its actions before the findings were published, but the department did not participate. That did not stop Interior, however, from disagreeing with the “GAO’s erroneous opinion” that it said we premature.

“The Department acted well within its legal authority to clean up restrooms and pick up trash so the American people could enjoy their national parks,” said a prepared statement from an Interior spokesperson.

But Jeff Ruch, Pacific director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the GAO report is a result of a rogue executive branch, and that misuse of funds is one of multiple offenses committed by the Trump administration. He said the law “assumes executive branch commitment to following the rules set forth by Congress.”

Emily Douce, director of operations and park funding at the National Parks Conservation Association, said it was alarming that Interior did not cooperate with GAO – but not surprising.

“It’s very concerning that this seems to be a pattern with this administration,” she said. “They want to do whatever they want to do and not follow the law.”

The Western Caucus, headed by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, said Interior was not given “adequate time to respond to this misguided attack from Rep. Grijalva and others with an anti-Trump agenda.” He said Bernhardt should be applauded for keeping parks open, not assailed.

“The Obama administration continuously used their immigration fee slush fund to support an open borders agenda and illegal amnesty programs,” Gosar’s statement said. “Where was GAO then?”

Douce said the shutdown was a blow to national park financial stability and integrity – especially as parks suffered damage due to lack of safeguards during the shutdown. She said her organization called for park closures only after damage was reported at places such as Joshua Tree National Park.

The report “takes care of the issue on the funding end of things. Where’s the help for the natural and cultural resources that were damaged?” Douce asked. “That we still don’t have an answer to.”

Although it has no power to enforce its recommendations, the GAO warned that it will “consider any future use” of Bernhardt’s approach “to be a knowing and willful violation” of appropriations law. If there are future violations, they must be report to Congress, the officials responsible must be identified and the department must explain corrections made, GAO said.

Grijalva also warned that Congress and voters are watching carefully.

“Should Republicans shut down our government again at the end of this fiscal year, Congress and the nation will look to this ruling and hold the administration accountable for every dollar they attempt to steal from the American people,” his statement said.

For more stories from Cronkite News, visit cronkitenews.azpbs.org.

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(11) comments

dougleonard6

This is so stupid. No matter what it comes from public funds. This is just another left trying to figure out a way to get a very good president. At least he has made more jobs unlike that other person that was just sitting in the white house..... This is a stupid waste of taxpayer money again....

HwyRovr

Yes, we on left are most assuredly attempting to get "get a very good president" and do away with the lying, racist, draft dodging coward who is currently squatting in our White House.

And now let's deal with some facts rather than ignorant hyperbole - President Obama saw 16 million jobs created a 11.6% increase: President Clinton saw 18.6 million jobs created a 1.6% increase: and liar-in-chief has, so far, seen an increase of just 5 million jobs a dismal 3.3%.

VA172

The key word there is "attempting". Which one is capable of beating a Republican candidate? All the Dems want to do is give, give and more give. Free college, $1000 a month free money, guaranteed jobs and housing. Do voters actually want that? NO!

Dawn King

Doug, did you read that this action was beyond the lawful constraints placed on this department, i.e., they broke the law? Dedicated funding sources generally cannot be transferred to fund other accounts/projects/services at the whim of government officials. This may be inconvenient, but it is part of the rule of law that has served this country well. But even if that doesn't get your boxers in a bunch, how about the millions of (taxpayer) dollars in damages that vandals did to the parks and monuments because they were not properly staffed due to spanky's ridiculous government shutdown?

HwyRovr

Surprise! Not.

HwyRovr

Oops, Clinton a 15.6% increase.

VA172

Oops. Trump Employment Record— Total nonfarm employment grew by nearly 4.6 million during the president’s first 23 months in office, according to the most recent figures available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is an average of 200,00 per month average.

Obama had a 166,667 per month average.

Clinton had a 193,750 per month average.

Surprise! not.

You are comparing 2 presidents 96 months in office with the first 23 months for Trump.

HwyRovr

This is what the fool posted, "...he (the lying, draft dodger) has made more jobs unlike that other person that was just sitting in the white house..." Now, you were saying?

HwyRovr

In spite of a decent July #JobsReport, Trump has slipped from 6th place to 7th place (out of 14) in the number of jobs created during the first 30 months of a President’s term in office, going back the last 54 years.

Dawn King



You claim that old spanky has brought strong economic growth to this country, but you are conveniently overlooking the fact that our last president brought this country back from a NEGATIVE 9% GDP! Spanky's helter-skelter tariffs are affecting our economy. They gave this country a higher GDP in the quarter before they took effect because everyone was trying to stock up before the higher costs hit them. In the long run, however, it's going to hurt this country tremendously. People are already losing jobs over this and guess what? The trade deficit actually INCREASED over 9% last month. Also, who is going to pay those tariffs? It's not China. It's Americans who will pay a much higher price for their products. Homebuilders are already complaining about the rising prices of building materials. America was already great when this usurper took office. The GDP was steady, unemployment was low, and we were respected around the world. Today, we are a laughingstock.

JVW

Va-172. This is another Paragraph of deceit by Bobby rovR. This guy has no light at the end of his tunnel. PROPAGANDA!! Dawn your just as sick


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