Georgia parks on path to grow in size, standing in national system

Georgia is celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service in grand fashion with a trio of bills in Congress that would raise the profile of three historic areas in the state.

If signed into law, Georgia’s relatively thin parks profile will get a major boost, and more land will be set aside for historical, cultural and recreational enjoyment.

The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta and the Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon are each seeking new designations as national historical parks. Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park would add 8 acres of parkland and an old farmhouse.

“This is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, and it would be so fitting and so appropriate for the state of Georgia and for this region to have a national park,” said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who is sponsoring legislation to expand the King site.

Despite Americans' deep love of national parks, Congress no longer routinely includes money to expand parks. The liberal Center for American Progress earlier this year reported that 77 percent of voters agree that the park system benefits the U.S. a "great deal" or a "fair amount." Yet strict governmentwide spending caps keep the National Park Service strapped for cash, particularly with an estimated $12 billion backlog of maintenance and repair projects already on the books.

So park backers can’t rely on Congress and must get creative by crafting proposals that either cost the government very little money or leveraging partnerships with trusts or private groups.

The King site, for example, is relying on neighborhood restoration groups to help cover the upgrade of the Prince Hall Masonic Building under the legislation being shepherded by Lewis.

Money problems 

Much has changed since Congress established the National Park Service in August 1916. The system has grown from 35 national parks and monuments with “natural and historic” significance to more than 400 that stretch across 84 million acres.

As the number of protected sites has grown over the years, Congress has struggled to keep up with the park maintenance given all the government priorities competing for limited federal dollars. In 2015, the Park Service estimated that the annual shortfall in its operations budget, the money used to keep its backlog from getting worse, was $347 million.

“If you have to decide between doing law enforcement, paying the light bill or fixing the leaky roof on the shed, you know what won’t get done,” said Don Barger, the senior regional director for the Southeast at the National Parks Conservation Association.

John Garder, Barger’s colleague who oversees budget work for the group, said the park system took a particularly large hit in 2013, when across-the-board federal spending cuts approved by Congress two years earlier went into effect.

“The climate of fiscal austerity since fiscal year 2011 has undoubtedly been challenging for national parks,” Garder said. The cutbacks from the 2013 sequester, he said, led to closed facilities and almost 2,000 fewer rangers working on the sites.

The lawmakers closest to the federal purse strings, Garder said, have since tried to reverse some of the cuts that were implemented in 2013 — the most recent government spending bill boosted funding for the National Park Service by 9 percent, in part for the centennial — but the system has yet to return to its pre-2013 levels.

Georgia’s proposals

The paucity of federal funding has dramatically shaped how the backers of the three major Georgia sites drew up their proposals.

All three fashioned their expansions to be of little or no cost to the federal government. They instead rely heavily on the support of trusts and other private groups.

Legislation sponsored by U.S. Reps. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, and Austin Scott, R-Tifton, would allow the Park Service to expand the boundaries of the Ocmulgee site only if land is donated or exchanged. It’s a similar story in Kennesaw.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that any cost related to maintenance and upkeep of the Ocmulgee and King sites would be “insignificant” but subject to the availability of money appropriated by Congress. It said implementing the Kennesaw bill would cost $2 million through 2021 to develop and operate the new property.

“Because of the way that we carefully crafted the bill so that the government would not be spending its funds to purchase or to acquire the land, I believe we were able to assuage the concerns of some of those people who had (been) adverse to the government’s acquisition of additional lands,” Bishop said.

In a way, the bills strike a political balance for lawmakers particularly concerned about federal spending — they deliver the kinds of projects that constituents love while also not adding to the deficit in any significant way.

“What we did was take this bill and apply conservative principles to it to give the ability for the federal government to preserve this historic home, but yet they cannot use the power of eminent domain,” said U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, the Cassville Republican sponsoring the Kennesaw legislation.

Loudermilk, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said the bill works because the land “has to be donated or sold willingfully.”

“We did it without any additional cost to the federal government,” he said.

Designing parks-related bills in that fashion also helps cut down on possible opposition from other lawmakers. Indeed, the sponsors of all three Georgia bills said they have not received any pushback from colleagues.

All three measures were passed by the U.S. House earlier this spring and are awaiting passage in the Senate. A fourth bill to expand the Fort Frederica National Monument on St. Simons Island has yet to see action in either chamber.

Boosting Georgia’s parks profile, with more land and heightened national recognition, is long overdue. There are 59 national parks — such as the Grand Canyon — but none in Georgia. A three-year study is included in the Ocmulgee legislation to determine whether the park should again be greatly expanded and transformed into a national park.

“I think it’s long overdue for us to have a national (historical) park in Georgia and more than a national historic site,” Lewis said.

Garder said the parks themselves have embraced the strategy of leveraging private funds, “which are critical dollars that national parks need.”

”But the reality is that even with the increases of philanthropic support, the lion’s share of funding for national parks will always need to come from Congress,” Garder said, “and Americans understand and support federal funding for parks.”

Centennial spending

In the lead-up to its 100th birthday, the National Park Service has mainly escaped the kind of partisan infighting in Congress that has characterized the debate around the public lands managed by its cousin, the Bureau of Land Management.

“When you look out, especially in the Western states with the expansion of the government grabbing the land, that’s a totally different scenario than what we have here,” Loudermilk said in reference to the Kennesaw park bill.

There have been some pockets of ideological resistance to the idea of government expanding its reach in the states. The House in 2014, for example, passed a bill that would have limited the president’s ability to designate new national monuments, legislation Democrats dubbed the “no more national parks” bill. It quickly died in the Senate.

There has also been some recent squabbling within the Republican Party over the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is funded mainly through federal revenue from offshore drilling and is intended to acquire new national parkland, among other things.

But overall, Garder said, bipartisan support for parkland is strong. Finding enough money will be the biggest challenge, he added, particularly with federal spending caps in place through 2021.