VP Pence visits Old Faithful in push for park maintenance funding

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Relying on a spectacular display of mother nature to drive his point home, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday called for additional funding for America’s national parks, saying they are “extraordinary treasures in the life of our nation.”

Pence was joined in Yellowstone National Park by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly. The Vice President spoke in front of a well-timed, routine eruption from the reliable Old Faithful Geyser to push for a Congressional appropriation to address deferred maintenance in America’s national parks.

The Trump administration is backing a bipartisan bill that would set aside an estimated $6.8 billion over 10 years to be spent on a $16 billion maintenance backlog at Interior. Nearly $12 billion of that is needed by the National Park Service to repair campgrounds, roads, bridges, visitor centers, trails and other infrastructure.

The recurring funding, up to $1.3 billion annually, would come from energy revenues derived from taxes on oil, gas, coal, wind, solar and other energy resources on federal public lands.

The proposal isn’t new, having failed to pass Congress last year. The Trump administration renewed its funding push in March, as the President has struggled — without much progress so far — to work with Congressional Democrats on infrastructure spending.

America’s National Parks enjoy broad bipartisan support, with more than 300 million people visiting the country’s 419 national park sites annually.

Visitation in many of the country’s most popular parks has spiked sharply over the past decade, particularly among overseas visitors, who pay no federal taxes, unlike domestic visitors.

But despite the increase in traffic — up roughly 50 percent in Yellowstone over the past decade — funding and staffing for parks has remained relatively flat.

Pence said the Trump administration was committed to conserving and protecting parks for future generations, but sidestepped questions from reporters about why the president has proposed cutting funding for the Park Service in 2020 by 15 percent.

The National Park Service, an agency of the Interior Department, employs more than 20,000 and draws on more than 315,000 volunteers annually.

Pence, Sholly and Bernhardt followed up their public remarks with a volunteer photo-op of the three men briefly helping to lay new boards along the Old Faithful boardwalk, where most of Yellowstone’s 4 million annual visitors stroll to take in the 140-foot (43-meter) eruptions that follow a predictable pattern of about every 90 minutes.

Paul and Nadine Atkinson, a retired couple from Columbia Falls, Mont., were among the geyser gazers who had to view the eruption from a less ideal section of boardwalk to accommodate security concerns for Pence.

“This is one of the true treasures of our country, and keeping it in good shape is a great idea,” said Paul Atkinson, who lives with his wife near Glacier National Park. The Atkinsons are Trump supporters who said more should be spent on parks.

Julian Betancourt, 22, said he came from San Diego, Calif. on vacation to see Old Faithful, and was unaware Pence was in the Park.

“But I support the idea of more and better spending for maintenance, or for parks in general,” said Betancourt, who didn’t vote in the last election and said he doesn’t follow politics.

Others were unfazed by Pence’s visit, saying they were more excited to see grizzly bears, gray wolves or other geysers with more elusive eruption schedules.

Even the Internet weighed in, with users on Twitter grousing about being excluded from prime viewing areas along the boardwalk, and lamenting a decision to temporarily cut the live webcast of Old Faithful’s eruptions until the vice president’s visit concluded.

Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].

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