POWELL — U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi is tired of failed efforts to resolve a $12 billion backlog of maintenance projects in the country’s national parks. The Wyoming Republican insists his newly proposed legislation would answer the problem with actual cash from new fees, not just promises.
Peers tried to talk Enzi out of proposing his bill while bi-partisan legislation co-sponsored by 41 senators, called the Restore Our Parks Act, works its way through the system. But Enzi refused to wait.
“The [Restore Our Parks Act] bill ... doesn’t have real money in it,” he said in a Thursday phone interview.
The act is backed by the Trump administration; Vice President Mike Pence and Department of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced the bill during a June appearance in Yellowstone. However, according to Enzi, it comes to a big goose egg.
“I don’t like passing bills that give people a false impression that they have solved something,” he said.
Funding for the Restore Our Parks Act would come from 50 percent of all energy development revenues that are not otherwise allocated and deposited into the general treasury — not to exceed $1.3 billion per year for the next five years.
“With what they were considering excess funds, [that] wouldn’t even cover half of what is needed anyway,” Enzi said, adding that, “When I look at that from the budget standpoint, I knew there won’t be any excess funds, so somebody needs to do something.”
The senator said his bill, the National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund, would offer real money for the backlog.
Enzi’s legislation would authorize a fund paid for by increasing tourist B-1/B-2 visa fees by $25, increasing the Electronic System for Travel Authorization fee by $16, and a park fee increase of $5. U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is the bill’s only co-sponsor.
More than 9 million tourist visas were issued in 2018, the last year the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs reported visa statistics. Many of the tourists head to National Park Service properties; the National Travel and Tourism Office reports more than one-third of overseas travelers visited a national park or national monument in 2018.
Enzi said the additional charges are reciprocal and won’t cause waves. “If you go overseas, chances are you’ll pay an extra amount to see any of their parks,” he said.
Applying the fee to the cost of a visa is the only way to collect money from foreign visitors, he said.
“There seems to be a reluctance to show if [foreign visitors] are on a visa or have a U.S. identification of some sort. But I can’t get on a plane without my ID,” Enzi mused.
The modest increase in entrance fees (adjusted for inflation each year through 2029) isn’t too much to ask, Enzi said.
“Right now, if you take your family to the movie, it will cost you more than getting into the park for seven days,” he said.
Enzi also wants to move the cost of maintenance on National Park Service parkways, like the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Washington, D.C.
“I’d like to see us move that into the roads and bridges account — which is what it is,” he said. “It’s transportation for people here to get to work and to get home at night. That shouldn’t be part of the national park backlog of maintenance.”
Wyoming’s portion of the national maintenance backlog is estimated to be about $700 million, including $470 million at Yellowstone and $179 million at Grand Teton.
Enzi realizes his bill is just a start and won’t pay the full cost of the delayed projects, “but it’s real money.”
Enzi developed a love and respect for the National Park System as a youngster in Wyoming.
“I kind of grew up in Yellowstone Park,” he said. “My grandparents used to go there when it opened in the spring and stay until it closed in the fall. I got to go up and help them move campsites at least every 15 days; that’s how long you could stay in a campground at that time.”
Whether the Enzi bill gets traction in his final year in the Senate is hard to tell. Enzi recently announced he will not run for a fourth term, so he’ll exit the Senate at the start of 2021. But his priorities are clear.
“We’ve had this problem for a long time,” he said. “I try to get people to pay for things in a logical way. I consider this to be a user fee and not a tax.”
His bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.