Interior Secretary Zinke outlines future of National Park Service
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke came to the mountains Friday to celebrate the 101st birthday of the National Park Service and also lay out the department’s future.
“We want to be the best possible stewards we can be in the future, but we've got to make sure that we give the tools and the front line the right authorities, the right resources and the right personnel to make the decisions they should,” he said.
Zinke said the country’s national parks are facing an $11.5 billion maintenance backlog that he wants to close in five years.
“If we as Americans can't figure out public lands on an American issue, then we're in trouble. I don't think we're at that point. Let's figure it out as Americans and prioritize what we really love best,” he said.
This comes on the heels of a proposed budget from President Donald Trump that would cut funds to the department.
“Everyone knows you propose a budget, and it's really Congress that goes to work. But I think we need a discussion on a budget of where we are as a country,” Zinke said.
He described the path forward which he said included more money than was initially proposed.
He also said there wouldn’t be any cuts to staffing, instead, restructuring the way the National Parks Service operates.
He explained that means moving upper and middle management staffers back to the fields and give more authority to those at the local level.
“You don't need someone on a simple decision to oversee it seven different layers to get approval,” Zinke said.
In addition to closing the backlog, Zinke said the way people use the park system is changing and it needs to have better infrastructure to keep up with how people use it.
He pointed to increased services like wider roads for bike paths and Wi-Fi for a younger generation.
He also discussed leveraging public-private partnerships like businesses along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“Last time I looked, rangers don’t flip burgers. You do,” he said, referring to Bruce O’Connell, owner of Pisgah Inn, the site for Zinke's visit. “But we also have to look at how to make sure the contracts are longer term in length.”
That was something O’Connell could stand behind.
“When I build a deck like this that could cost half a million dollars to build, I've got to try to sell enough glasses of iced tea to pay for this deck in 10 years, and it's very difficult. So, I'm encouraged to hear him say he understands that part of the equation,” said O’Connell.
Zinke also said he has authorized payment of an additional $4 million owed to Swain County to pay for the so-called “Road to Nowhere.”