Park Service creating new monuments, landmarks despite sequester cutbacks

Two months after the sequester hit, the Department of Interior continues to warn of coast-to-coast cuts for the country's national parks -- and even the partial shutdown of a critical flood warning system.

But Sen. Tom Coburn says there's "no shortage of potential savings," pointing out that the department is nevertheless spending millions on newly created monuments and landmarks.

The Oklahoma Republican, who has been hounding federal agencies for weeks about questionable spending under the cloud of sequester, aired his grievances with the Interior Department in a letter to Secretary Sally Jewell Tuesday.

"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," Coburn wrote.

Coburn pointedly questioned department efforts to name new sites and expand others -- decisions that will contribute to the department's annual costs. Coburn said the National Park Service has designated 13 new historic landmarks and three new monuments since the sequester hit March 1. One of those landmarks, he noted, is a whiskey distillery -- the George T. Stagg Distillery in Kentucky. Other newly created landmarks include the Connecticut home of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, the historic bridge crossed by civil rights marchers in Selma, Ala., and an artists' retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Coburn also said the NPS is trying to acquire new land elsewhere for existing parks, and urged the department to "cease" until normal access to U.S. parks has been restored.

Coburn also questioned whether the department needed to be spending money on drone surveillance of animal populations ranging from sheep in Nevada to pygmy rabbits in Idaho. Coburn cited several population counts that are expected to be conducted later this year.

Despite these expenses, the Associated Press reported in late April that the U.S. Geological Survey -- which is part of the Interior Department -- was preparing to shut down more than 100 gauges that warn about possible flooding or water shortages.

Plus department officials have repeatedly discussed the impact on national parks. NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis testified last month that the sequester would lead to "delayed road openings, reduced hours of operation for programs and services and fewer programs and patrols."

In response to Coburn's letter, Interior spokesman Blake Androff said the department cannot move money around so easily.

"Sequestration requires an across-the-board cut to all programs and accounts and does not allow the flexibility to rob Peter to pay Paul," he said. "The Department of the Interior has already taken aggressive steps to reduce spending across the agency and will continue to look for innovative ways to cut costs while preserving our mission essential activities."

Roughly half the department budget pays staff, which is far more than at other agencies. The department argues that the sequester cuts, then, have a significant impact on services -- seasonal hiring, for instance, had to be drastically cut back, which impacts programs at national parks.

Federal agencies have each responded differently to the sequester. The Federal Aviation Administration rattled lawmakers after it furloughed air traffic controllers, leading to delays at major U.S. airports. Congress, though, intervened by allowing the FAA to move money around, in turn canceling those furloughs.

The private business community also has stepped in. At Yellowstone National Park, two cities stepped up when the National Park Service decided to save money by plowing snow two weeks later than usual. This would have delayed the clearing of four park gates well past the typical May 1 opening, so city officials held a fundraiser and collected enough money to pay the state to clear the roads, ensuring the gates will be open on time.

Coburn cited this as a positive example in his letter, and urged the department to find more savings.

"I believe the Department can continue to maintain this same level access even under sequestration," he wrote. "To accomplish this, the Department must prioritize its core mission, eliminate unnecessary, wasteful, and duplicative programs, and find innovative ways to do more with less."