Dear Congress: Fix national park maintenance backlog this session

 

02-21-2019

 

In the past month, the U.S. Congress has started to demonstrate the ability to legislate the old fashioned way by forging bipartisan compromises and getting those to the House and Senate floors.

Two examples are the bill to fund the government that addressed the proposed border wall and the comprehensive public lands bill that passed the Senate. (The latter, which included some proposals that had languished for upwards of a decade, still awaits action in the House of Representatives.)

Now Congress needs to move legislation to fix the $12 billion backlog in maintenance at national parks, monuments and other U.S. Park Service properties to the top of its do-list. It needs to get a bill to the president’s desk this session.

A little of the history: The National Park Service manages more infrastructure than any federal agency except the Defense Department. There are 417 Park Service properties.

Meanwhile, the number of visits to these properties has soared, an indicator of their value to the American people. In 2006, the Park Service recorded 273 million visits. In 2017, there were 331 million visits. Of course, the same people often visit parks more than once per year. But to put the 2017 figure in perspective, the estimated population of the whole country in 2017 was $325 million.

In at least the past 20 years, appropriations for maintenance of roads, bridges, tunnels, sewer systems, water systems, other utilities, trails, campgrounds and many more assets have failed to keep up with needs, particularly with the wear and tear of high use.

In fact, one problem has been that Congress has put an increasing share of its appropriations into operations to help parks handle the increase in visitors.

Meanwhile, new parks, monuments and historic landmarks have been designated without a corresponding increase in appropriations, especially for maintenance.

In 2017, the Park Service published a list, by state and property, of the dollar amount of maintenance that had been deferred for more than one year. The total came to $11.6 billion. And the Park Service said that total was up 2.5 percent from the previous year.

Assuming costs have continued to rise by at least 2.5 percent per year since 2017, the Park Service budget is now just under the $12 billion mark.

On the 2017 list, Utah ranked 12th among the states with $266 million in deferred maintenance needs. That included $65 million at our beloved Zion National Park, and if you’ve spent any time there lately, the figure doesn’t surprise you.

The list showed $63 million is needed at the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, $40 million at Canyonlands, $27 million at Bryce and $25 million at Arches. At Capitol Reef, the national park closest to Sanpete County, which, fortunately perhaps, gets fewer visitors than the other Utah parks, the tab is just $8 million.

We really don’t really need to make the case that Congress must come up with the money. The Park Service properties are our state and national treasures. People traveling through Sanpete and other central Utah counties on the way to the parks are an important piece of our rural economy.

The park service, with is wonderful rangers and interpreters, says its mission is to provide a world-class visitor experience. If it can’t take care of its assets, it can’t fulfill that mission.

In some cases, public health and safety is at stake. At the Grand Canyon, a water main broke 18 times between 2010 and 2018. The last time it happened, the Park Service had to shut off water in the sinks in public restrooms.

In 2017, a bipartisan bill called the National Park Service Legacy Act was introduced in the Senate. It would have directed money collected from energy development on public lands into a fund for park maintenance. The bill never got out of committee.

In 2018, the National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund Act did make it out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. But it never got to the floor.

Also in 2018, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Rep. Raul Grijavla, D-Ariz., at the time the chairman and ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced a measure called the Restore Our National Parks and Public Lands Act. The bill attracted 169 co-sponsors. But again, it didn’t go anywhere.

This is the kind of inaction (may we call it irresponsibility) that is very hard for us rank-and-file constituents out here in Utah to understand. Things need to change this year on this problem.