POLITICS

Tom Coburn: Interior Department should stop counting sheep and keep parks open

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Congress,Michal Conger,Departments,Interior,Agriculture

Interior Department officials dealing with sequestration could keep national parks open if they’d stop counting sheep and buying hybrid autos, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in a letter Tuesday.

A video on the department’s YouTube channel last month warned that sequestration would shorten park hours, close hiking trails and campgrounds and reduce the season of some parks. The U.S. Geological Survey also warned it would be forced to shut down hundreds of flood warning gauges across the country.

Meanwhile, Interior plans to keep spending on low-priority programs that could be cut to spare parks from sequestration, Coburn said.

One program he singled out uses military drones to study pygmy rabbits in Idaho, observe elk in Washington and count sheep in Nevada.

“While these studies may provide some interesting information about rabbits, sheep and other animals, cancelling or delaying them is not life threatening. Yet shutting down vital flood gauges, by the agency’s own admission, could be,” Coburn wrote.

The Interior Department also announced last week it will replace 300 vehicles in its fleet with new hybrids as part of a General Services Administration program subsidizing a greener federal fleet. Interior is the first department to participate in the GSA’s hybrid fleet program.

“At a time of when the department is threatening to close public access to national parks it is not the time to upgrade the vehicle fleet for bureaucrats,” said Coburn.

Conferences cost the department $7.8 million last year, another expense it could slash to keep parks open. But instead of sending employees to fewer conferences, department officials have developed ways to justify their expenses, Coburn said.

Organizers for the National Outdoor Recreation and Forests for the People Conference, which the National Park Service helped plan, acknowledged budgets are tight and offered a template for a letter “to justify attending the conference.”

Conferences aren’t the only travel expense Interior racks up each year. In fiscal 2009, the department spent $206 million on travel, including $63 million on airfare alone, according to Coburn. The Department of Interior’s Inspector General in 2011 reported the department could save up to $22 million in travel costs each year by using video teleconferencing equipment more often.

And while it threatens to reduce access to parks, the National Park Service has designated 13 new historical landmarks and three national national monuments since sequestration took effect on March 1, 2013. Delaware’s new national monument alone will cost $4 million each year in upkeep.

“The Vice President justified creating the new monument in Delaware, which is expected to cost taxpayers $4 million a year, “because this state is an incredible state.”  That may be true and each of the others also boasts its own unique contribution to our nation’s history and culture,” Coburn wrote. “But, it makes little sense to expand the number of sites at the same time the budget of every other park is being cut and visitors are being turned away from visiting the White House.”

A 30-page report submitted by Interior to the Office of Management and Budget last April detailed a plan to consolidate field offices and cut about 5,000 employees, or 7 percent of the department’s workforce, in order to save money. But the report was simply a “planning activity,” department officials told the Federal Times, and Interior doesn’t actually intend to make the cuts.

Coburn concluded his letter by asking Jewell to explain how Interior will follow recommendations to cut costs without affecting national parks this year. He requested a response by May 14.

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