Mr. President, I rise to speak about the Great American Outdoors Act, and the need to find a responsible way to pay for the maintenance backlog at our National Parks.
Our National Parks are an important source of pride for our country. Unfortunately, our parks are in the midst of a rising crisis that has been building over many years. They are in desperate need of repair and maintenance, and fixing them will require billions of dollars.
This week the Senate is working on legislation to address this backlog, and I believe it is vital that we address this issue both responsibly and permanently. This will help future generations to fix problems in our parks without having to put the cost on the nation’s credit card.
Unfortunately, the Great American Outdoors Act as written represents only a one-time fix that is neither responsible nor permanent. Instead, the bill adds over $17 billion to our national debt. Moreover, the measure includes a permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund program, which will add even more future maintenance to our already backlogged systems.
After all of the spending we have just undertaken, we must be more vigilant in finding proper ways to ensure our government spending is paid for, and fixing this bill can be an important place to start. Without some changes, this legislation will force our country to borrow more money, burying us deeper in debt, and only provide funding for five years.
I am also concerned that the bill tries to spend the same money twice using a budget gimmick.
We should always strive to be fiscally responsible, and that is even more important now after Congress has spent more than $2 trillion to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. To address the current parks backlog, it would cost nearly $12 billion, according to the National Park Service. In comparison, last year, the entire budget for the National Park Service was $4.1 billion. Congress is already struggling to find funding for other worthwhile federal needs.
That is why for the past several years, I have worked on a fix. I have filed an amendment to this bill that addresses the maintenance issues responsibly and permanently without adding to our debt. Let me repeat that: my amendment is completely offset and provides a permanent solution.
The way that my amendment works is by asking our foreign visitors, who as the numbers show are increasingly enjoying our parks, to pay $16 or $25 more when entering the country. According to a study by the U.S. Travel Association, nearly 40 percent of people who come to the U.S. from abroad are visiting one of our national parks. That’s over 14 million people who come from abroad and visit our national parks.
It’s great that people from all over the world recognize the value in these national treasures, but this increased visitation is adding to the maintenance backlog and it is only fair that we ask them to help maintain these national treasures. There is nothing novel about this concept. Anyone who has visited an attraction outside the U.S. has probably encountered such fees in one way or another.
For example, foreign visitors at the Taj Mahal in India will pay an $18 fee, compared to a fee of only 56 cents for local visitors. At Kruger National Park in South Africa, visitors from outside the country will pay a $25 fee per day, compared to a $6.25 fee for local visitors. Many European countries like Spain, France, and Italy charge a tourist tax on hotels rooms that is used to pay for tourism infrastructure.
We also ask park visitors to assist with addressing the backlog. No one likes to pay more for things, especially during times like these, but to maintain these national treasures for future generations, we either borrow money and put it on the national credit card or we take some modest steps to address the issues responsibly. My amendment only raises entrance fees by $5 and annual passes by $20, so bringing a vehicle into a park would still be cheaper than taking a family of four to a movie or visiting an amusement park for a day.
We as a nation have seen the joy that our national parks bring to those who venture out and visit them. In Wyoming and all across the country, America’s national parks are something to be proud of and protect. We owe it to the parks – and to the citizens and foreign visitors who partake in their wonders – to keep them in good working order. We should not allow the maintenance and repairs to fester, which erodes visitor experiences and costs billions to fix.
Fixing this bill will help ensure we no longer have to put our parks’ current obligations on the backs of future generations. I know the amount at stake here won’t end our fiscal crisis, but if we can’t do something modest to start to address our spending addiction, then we are in greater trouble than I thought.