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Park Service deserves a bigger check

President Donald Trump deserves some credit for fulfilling a campaign promise and donating his salary back to the government this week, but if he really wants to help the National Park Service, the $78,333 check he handed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Monday is not the answer. What the Park Service, the 101-year-old keeper of this nation's most revered natural and cultural resources, truly needs is a way to meet its maintenance backlog of $12 billion — or perhaps $11,999,921,677.00 if you factor in the president's handout.

Politically, Mr. Trump's choice of recipients was canny given his public squabbles with the agency dating back to the modest inauguration day crowd estimates that infuriated the president on Day 1 — seemingly because of their accuracy. And some current Park Service employees have continued to needle President Trump through Twitter under the "alt" U.S. Park Service designation. But the coup de grace is that Mr. Trump has recently proposed a dramatic reduction in Interior Department spending, offering a budget that would cut the agency by $1.5 billion or 12 percent.

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Thus, President Trump has made one-day favorable headlines with a photograph of an oversized check for giving back 52 ten-thousandths of 1 percent of what he's taking away from interior spending, including the National Park Service. And that's not even counting Mr. Trump's other ongoing assaults on the environment and anti-pollution regulations like his war on climate change science or, closer to home, his decision to eliminate funding for the EPA's Chesapeake Bay program. Well played, Reverse John Muir.

There's a better way for President Trump to reassure Americans that he cares about the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Acadia and the other national treasurers visited by millions each year than with his paycheck. What he ought to do is stand up and lend his support to bipartisan legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate last month and co-sponsored by Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat, and Ohio Senator Rob Portman, a Republican, that would tap federal oil and gas royalties to establish a $500 million annual restoration fund to fix the parks and landmarks.

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The maintenance backlog isn't a problem that happened overnight but has been building for decades. The legislation anticipates that it will also take decades to fix — the fund would run through 2047. It's also a problem that has ramifications for every state in the union. Maintenance at Maryland's own NPS sites from Antietam to Assateague are estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

And here's where Mr. Trump, the developer and supporter of U.S. infrastructure spending, ought to take note: Advocates say every federal dollar spent on public lands, whether it means fixing a bridge along the George Washington Memorial Parkway or resurfacing the tow path on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, can generate $10 in economic activity. A big chunk of that is in the tourism industry, given that the parks collectively welcomed more than 330 million visitors last year, a record crowd. That's a considerably bigger payoff than any wall along the nation's southern border could possibly generate, an especially nonsensical project considering its high cost (which could prove twice the size of the entire Park Service maintenance backlog) and the wall's modest benefit (illegal border crossings are already near a 50-year low).

But wait, there's more. The National Park Service also offers the kind of opportunity that usually appeals to conservatives — leveraging private investment. It's been done before. The renovations of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, for example, were done with private partners. If the federal government could pledge a matching grant, for example, one could envision Marylanders donating money for worthy improvements such as an interior restoration of the historic Worthington House at Monocacy National Battlefield.

Conservatives in Congress have traditionally been an obstacle to full funding of the National Park Service. They've made noises about President Trump decommissioning national monuments added to the federal inventory by the Obama administration. That would be a mistake. Americans love their parks (one recent poll of seven Western states by Colorado College found 94 percent or respondents favor more maintenance spending on them) and bringing the parks to full flower is a win-win-win not only for the jobs and national pride the project would generate but the political popularity that would accrue to those who made it happen.

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