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Questions swirl around spending cuts to national parks, lax controls in travel spending

Published: Thursday, May 23 2013 5:49 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — An independent audit of the U.S. Department of Interior shows the agency spends $250 million a year on travel in a "lax" system that lets employees frequently approve their own trips or have it done after the fact.

The final audit released Thursday by the Office of Inspector General said it found "significant" issues, particularly related to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including inflated travel expenses, an instance where both a taxi and a rental car were used, and a hotel voucher that included expenses for deodorant and alcohol.

"Supervisors are not adequately reviewing the travel documents and are allowing far too many authorizations and vouchers to be processed with errors, including improper charges that should have never been allowed," the report said.

The report was released the same day a Democratic-fueled analysis laments the impacts of cuts playing out at national parks across the country, including Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park. The National Park Service is an agency within the U.S. Department of Interior, which directed regional park supervisors to curb spending due to the federal budget cuts known as sequestration.

“National parks are known as America’s best idea,” said Edward Markey, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee who released the budget analysis. “But America’s best idea is now under attack by one of America’s worst ideas — the sequester."

Democrats who serve on that committee directed their staff to do interviews and compile information from top officials at 23 parks in the national park system.

At Bryce Canyon, the report notes that delayed openings are anticipated for some campgrounds, fewer educational programs will be offered to student visitors, and more than a half-dozen seasonal positions will not be filled, including a fee ranger.

The report said there could be possibly longer lines and reduced capacity for the park to respond to law enforcement-related incidents, of which there were 1,100 last year.

In that same year, there were 1.4 million visitors to the park, which will have to cut its $3.3 million budget by $163,000, according to the Democrats' report.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who serves on the same committee, was unmoved by the circumstances at national parks portrayed by his Democratic colleagues.

"It’s ironic that the Department of Interior can’t find money to keep normal operations at our parks, yet they always seem to have money to buy more land," he said, referencing the expenditure of $440,000 to buy land in Garfield County to protect it from development. The parcels were located along a state highway within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

"The half million spent on buying land in Garfield County could have covered the Bryce Canyon budget reduction three times over. If you have little to no money in the bank, you don’t go out and buy more property. Instead, the responsible course of action would be to liquidate unnecessary or unused assets and cut certain expenditures," Bishop said.

He's also been a loud critic of the Department of Interior's travel expenditures, getting legislation passed last year that now limits the travel of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees.

The audit covered travel during 2009 and 2010 in the GovTrip travel system that is being phased out this year.

Still, Bishop said concerns raised in the audit — such as hotel receipts that were 200 percent of standard per diem rates — goes to the broader issue of visitors' experiences to Interior-managed areas being sacrificed in favor of reckless spending in other areas.

"It flies in the face of fiscal responsibility," his office said.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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