Congressmen support bill to reduce maintenance backlog at national parks
By Suzanne Dean
WASHINGTON—All four of Utah’s Congressmen are supporting a bill to enable the U.S.National Park Service (NPS) to get going on long-delayed maintenance items at national parks, national monuments and other park-service properties around the country.
Rep. Rob Bishop, the former chair and now ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, is the sponsor of H.R. 1225, the Restore Our Parks Act. Reps. John Curtis, Chris Stewart and Ben McAdams are cosponsors.
A companion measure, also called Restore Our Parks Act, S. 500, has been introduced in the U.S. Senate, sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. Neither of Utah’s senators, Mike Lee or Mitt Romney, are among the 37 cosponsors in the Senate.
The bills have been referred to committees of jurisdiction in the House and Senate. A 2017 NPS inventory found that deferred maintenance at 417 park-service properties, defined as maintenance that was not performed as scheduled or needed, added up to $11.6 million.
The NPS said deferred maintenance was growing at 2.5 percent per year. By that yardstick, the current estimated backlog is $12.2 billion.
“Our national parks are national treasures that, sadly, suffer from terrible neglect,” Rep. Ben McAdams, whose district includes northern Sanpete County, said in a press release May 22. According to McAdams, national parks alone bring $1.2 billion per year into Utah’s economy.
“Each year that we do not address deteriorating infrastructure in these public assets, we see their value decline and the visitor experience suffer,” McAdams said. “As stewards of these assets, it’s fiscally irresponsible to allow them to deteriorate further.”
The maintenance needs include work on roads, bridges, tunnels, sewer systems, water systems, other utilities, trails, campgrounds and much more. One case in point is a water main at Grand Canyon National Park that broke 18 times between 2010 and 2018.
Utah ranks 12th among the 50 states on the 2017 NPS deferred maintenance list, with $266 million in maintenance needs. (See accompanying chart.)
The bills introduced in the current Congress are similar to bills that were reported out of House and Senate committees with bipartisan support during the last session of Congress but never brought to a vote on the floor.
According to the Congressional Research Service, both of the bills now pending propose to set up a special fund for deferred maintenance. Money flowing into the fund would come from leases and royalties companies pay for energy development both on federal lands and offshore. The leases and royalties arise from both conventional and renewable energy.
Currently, some of the royalty and lease revenue is shared with states. In Utah, for example, money from this source funds the Utah Community Impact Board (CIB), which makes grants to local projects.
The Congressional Research Service says some of the lease and royalty revenue goes to the U.S. Land and Water Conservation Fund, which makes grants to states to help with acquisition of sensitive lands and sometimes to build local parks and playgrounds.
The funds also flow to the U.S. Historic Preservation Fund, which operates the National Trust for Historic Preservation and makes grants to states and individuals for restoration of structures listed on the national historic register.
The rest of the lease and royalty money flows into the general treasury. According to the Congressional Research Service, the two pending bills call for about 50 percent of money flowing to the treasury to be redirected to the park maintenance fund up to a cap of $1.3 billion per year.
The $1.3 billion would provide about $6 billion over 10 years, which is still only half of the amount of the maintenance backlog.
There doesn’t seem to be much debate in Congress about the need to address deferred maintenance at parks and monuments. But there is disagreement about where the money for the maintenance should come from.
Some members of Congress think the nation has greater needs in areas other than park maintenance. Others want to stop fossil fuel development rather than rely on it as a federal funding source.
Some believe the NPS could reprioritize its current appropriation and do more to attract private donations. But both the Obama and Trump administrations have said only a significant funding increase would be sufficient to address the current multi-billion dollar backlog.