WASHINGTON -- The National Park Service could resume hiring rangers and seasonal staff and beef up visitor programs under President Barack Obama's spending wish list for fiscal year 2015.
The White House's budget request to Congress, unveiled Tuesday, proposed giving the park service $55 million more than the $2.53 billion the agency got from Congress for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said $30 million of proposed budget increase would be for the park service to operate the 401 parks, monuments, battlefields and other sites under its control.
"That (money) largely goes to beefing up the people side," Jewell told reporters in a conference call. "We've had significant cuts to things like seasonal ranger programs and other visitor services because the budgets have been tightened."
The budget request also calls on Capitol Hill lawmakers to provide a total of $1.2 billion over the next three years -- $400 million a year -- to rejuvenate the park service as it marks its 100th anniversary in 2016.
The so-called Centennial Initiative is meant to chip away at the $11 billion backlog in long-delayed maintenance projects nationwide, hire more young people and military veterans, attract additional volunteers of all ages and boost private donations by providing for federal matching grants.
Though similar programs failed to advance in the past, the Centennial Initiative deserves congressional support, said John Garder, a budget expert at the National Parks Conservation Association, a private advocacy group.
The administration deserves praise for proposing $100 million to do the most pressing maintenance projects next year, he said.
"But clearly Congress and the administration need to work together on a long-term plan to address the most mission-critical aspects of the maintenance backlog," Garder said.
The $30 million increase in the operating budget would allow the park service to meet its ever-increasing "fixed" costs like health care, do routine maintenance on roads, bridges and buildings and -- most importantly for visitors -- hire enough staff for nature hikes, history tours and provide other services people want, Garder said.
The agency has been under a long-term hiring freeze and has seen visitation levels drop due to across-the-board spending cuts required under the federal "budget sequestration" process, advocates say.
Seasonal personnel and visitor programs "were the first things to go go," Garder said.
"This proposal brings at least some of them back," he said.
On Monday, the Interior Department released a report showing 280 million visits to national parks in 2012. Last fall's 16-day partial government shutdown resulted in 8 million fewer visits in October compared to the average combined attendance for October 2010-2012, the report showed.
The Interior Department report said parks generated nearly $27 billion and supported 243,000 jobs in 2012.
Congressional supporters like Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat who leads an Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee that oversees the National Park Service, said the White House's budget proposal spells good news for parks in Colorado and throughout the U.S.
"The president's budget is an encouraging sign for Colorado's gateway communities hurt by last year's government shutdown, like Estes Park, which count on our parks to support local businesses," Udall said in a statement. "I am particularly gratified the president's budget provides crucial support for the upcoming National Parks Centennial celebration."