Who will pay for unsexy repairs in national parks?

Congress discusses how to prioritize the Park Service’s maintenance backlog.

 

On April 3, President Trump donated his first-quarter salary — $78,333.32 — to the National Park Service. The money was meant for “the infrastructure on our nation’s battlefields,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said. But battlefields account for just a fraction of the infrastructure problems plaguing the agency, and Trump would have to repeat his deed 153,192 times in order to cover the Park Service’s entire $12-billion backlog of postponed maintenance projects. It’s clearly going to take a much more substantial effort to bring that number down, especially as Trump has proposed a 12 percent cut to Interior’s budget. The recently introduced National Park Service Legacy Act would establish a fund to reduce the backlog over the next 30 years.

The list includes buildings, roads and trails as well as water and wastewater systems. As park infrastructure ages, the problem grows: park units more than 40 years old account for the vast majority of assets in need, and units designated more than a century ago account for almost a third of the backlog. With the parks seeing record levels of visitation—331 million visits in 2016—their aging infrastructure is seeing more use than ever.

Big Oak Flat Road undergoes erosion repairs. It is the only paved route connecting Highway 120 to Yosemite National Park. Paved roads are the highest deferred maintenance cost for the National Park Service as of 2015.
NPS

The often-touted $12 billion figure makes for a striking statistic. During an oversight hearing by the House Committee on Natural Resources’ Federal Lands Subcommittee on March 16, attendees called the figure “staggering,” “embarrassing,” and “hard to get your mind around.” That overwhelming number drives home the extent of the problem, but it can also make finding a reasonable solution seem nearly impossible. And questions have arisen as to whether it’s a useful — or even accurate — measure.

For instance, a recent Center for American Progress report called the backlog figure “bloated” because it lumps road costs in with the rest of the deficit. Funding for the park system’s tunnels, bridges and roads, which makes up half of the total backlog, comes from the Highway Trust Fund, not the Interior Department’s budget. Regardless, “they’re all legitimate backlog projects,” says John Garder, budget and appropriations director for the National Parks Conservation Association. The report also identified nearly $400 million in maintenance that the report says should be the responsibility of park concessionaires, such as $51 million for projects at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly known as the Ahwahnee).

At the hearing, witnesses offered a range of suggestions, including many that the Park Service already uses, such as philanthropy, volunteer work, leasing to private entities and public/private partnerships. But these solutions only go so far — for one thing, outside gifts don’t tend to support maintenance. “There is no philanthropic appeal to projects such as wastewater treatment plants,” wrote Deny Galvin, National Park Conservation Association board member, in his testimony for the hearing.

The historic Ahwahnee Hotel, recently renamed the Majestic Yosemite, accounts for $51 million of Yosemite National Park’s $555 million in deferred maintenance.

Reed Watson, executive director of the conservative think-tank Property and Environment Research Center, suggested that Congress had prioritized acquisition of new land over maintenance of existing park units. He recommended redirecting Land and Water Conservation Fund appropriations—mainly used for purchasing privately held parcels to expand public lands—toward maintenance. Congress, he said, should “stop spreading too-thin budgets across more and more acres.”

But ultimately, “a substantial portion of the answer” will require a “sustained program” of appropriations from Congress, Galvin says. There’s a precedent for this: Mission 66, a $1 billion investment in park infrastructure between 1956 and 1966. But the National Park Service Legacy Act would work more gradually, incrementally increasing funds allocated from mineral revenue over the next 10 years, and gearing up to $500 million annually from 2027 to 2047. Introduced by Sens. Mark R. Warner, D-Virginia, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, the bill seeks to address the projects the Park Service deems most critical, with 80 percent of funds going to historic sites and other repairs important to visitor access and safety, and 20 percent of the funds going to roads and other transportation projects. 

“When you boil the backlog down to the most critical projects,” Garder says, “it becomes a much more surmountable number and very realistic to address.” Those critical projects, according to the Park Service, amount to $3.5 billion, or a little less than a third of the backlog; the most pressing, such as a potable water distribution system at Grand Canyon National Park, account for about $1.3 billion. “It would be nice if every project were taken care of,” Garder notes, “but nobody is asking for that.”

Rebecca Worby is an editorial intern at NewTowncarShare News.

Another version of this story was published in our print magazine on May 1, 2017.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • available in Gothic, CO for 2019 summer season - Manager, Lead Cooks, Prep-Cooks, Dishwasher - at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL). The Dining Hall...
  • Suitable for planting hay, hemp, fruit. Excellent water rights. 1800 square foot farmhouse, outbuildings, worker housing.
  • More information: jobs.wisc.edu. Search 96076
  • Friends of the Verde River is looking for someone to join our team who has a keen investigative mind and is an excellent communicator and...
  • - Thriving Indie bookstore in Durango, CO. 1800 sf of busy retail space in a 3100 sf historic building. Long term lease or option to...
  • The Deep Springs College Kitchen Manager is responsible for the overall operations and budget of a small commercial kitchen and serves as teacher to students...
  • with home on one acre in Pocatello, ID. For information and photos visit www.blackrockforgeproperty.com.
  • The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is seeking a technical partner to develop a land management plan for the 1.9 million-acre Bears Ears Landscape in southeastern...
  • Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • on 3 acres near Moxon. 3 bd/1.5 bath, apt. Views/access to hiking, fishing, wildlife.1-207-593-6312. $165,900.
  • Senior position responsible for the development of all marketing and fundraising strategies to grow the base of philanthropic support and awareness of GSEP.
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • This newly created position with The Nature Conservancy's Colorado River Program will play a key role in the development and implementation of strategies to achieve...
  • A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • near Ennis, MT. Artist designed, 1900 SF, 2BR/2BA home on 11.6 acres with creek, tree, views, privacy. 406-570-9233 or [email protected] www.arrowreal.com (Country Homes).
  • Colorado Farm to Table is looking for a full-time energetic, creative Executive Director to lead our team in Salida.