ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah (AP) — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke dismissed the notion that he’s giving away public lands for oil and gas companies during a visit Monday to Utah’s Zion National Park where he drew attention to the maintenance backlog at national parks.
Zinke said “nothing could be further from the truth” when asked about his department letting oil and gas take over public lands, the Spectrum newspaper in St. George reports .
Zinke spoke in favor of a bill in Congress that would establish a fund to reduce the backlog using money the government gets from energy development. The proposal would send half of all energy development royalties from oil, gas, coal and renewable energy on federal lands to pay for maintenance projects at national parks, instead of to the general fund.
“I think our energy portfolio is going to change over the next 10, 15, 20 years,” he said. “This looks at all energy, all sources, thermal, wind, solar. So as the portfolio changes, the revenue also changes.”
The bipartisan bill has dozens of co-sponsors, but is in the infancy stages having only been approved by the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources last week.
The National Park Service estimates its total bill for overdue projects across the country at nearly $12 billion. Zinke visited the Grand Canyon in Arizona earlier this month to highlight the same issue.
“Our public lands experience . is the greatest on the face of the planet,” Zinke said. “The issue is that our public lands, and in particular our parks are being loved to death.”
Conservation groups say they appreciate the effort to address the crumbling national parks but say Zinke should first ensure funding doesn’t expire for the 54-year-old federal program that takes earnings from offshore oil and gas leasing to protect U.S. lands. That program, called the Land and Water Conservation Fund, is set to expire next week.
Jayson O’Neill, deputy director of the Western Values Project conservation organization, said in an interview with The Associated Press that a discussion about how to fund national park maintenance is important but said it’s hard to trust Zinke.
He called it hypocritical for Zinke to be touring national parks and proposing protections after the Trump administration last week rolled back an Obama-era rule that forced energy companies to capture methane — a key contributor to climate change that’s released in huge amounts during drilling on U.S. and tribal lands. The change could save companies as much as $2 billion in compliance costs over the next decade.
“It’s hard to not see this as just an opportunity for Secretary Zinke to get his Zion National Park stamp in his national park passport rather than addressing the issue,” O’Neill said.
Zion National Park, known for striking red-rock vistas, estimates its backlog at $65 million. Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said most of the maintenance backlogs have to do with roads, parking and buildings that need repair.
Zinke said Monday he’d like to new transportation plans for car-centric parks, including linking trails.
Also present on Monday to call for Congressional action were Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, who chairs the powerful House National Resources Committee, and his fellow GOP Congressmen Chris Stewart and John Curtis.
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