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Dueling Paths To Addressing The National Park Service's Maintenance Backlog

Rebuilding trails at Grand Canyon National Park/NPS

While entrance fees help fund maintenance work in the National Park System, there are various legislative proposals designed to tackle the maintenance backlog more effectively/NPS

The National Park Service's nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog didn't materialize overnight, but rather has been growing for nearly two decades. It's been puzzled together by the need for the Park Service to care for all the buildings, roads, trails, and campgrounds within the system as well as address safety and health matters that can impact visitors and park employees. There currently are at least three proposals for tackling that backlog, each with its own unique nuances. Let's take a look at them.

* It was a year ago when U.S. Sens. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, and Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, introduced their National Park Service Legacy Act, a 30-year plan to address the backlog. It would used congressional appropriations to address the backlog.

* The Alexander-Simpson bill introduced this past week, the National Park Restoration Act, is the de facto Trump administration proposal to create a fund of up to $18 billion from revenues derived from on- and offshore energy development to pay for the work. It has drawn criticism for relying on energy development on public lands to pay for shrinking the backlog. In other words, there could need to be more energy development on public lands to pay for protecting the National Park System.

* Senate Democrats last week floated their own "Jobs and Infrastructure Plan for America's Workers" that would earmark $15 billion to address backlogged maintenance projects across all public lands, with $5 billion specifically dedicated to "the highest priority deferred maintenance needs at the National Park Service." Overall, this plan calls for a $1 trillion investment in addressing the country's infrastructure needs.

Not currently on the table, but proposed by U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Arizona, when the National Park Service Centennial Act was being discussed late in 2016...near the end of the centennial year...was that Congress appropriate an additional $300 million per year for fiscal years 2017, 2018, and 2019 to help the Park Service address its maintenance backlog. While that wouldn't wipe out the maintenance backlog, it was a step in the right direction. But U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, wouldn't consider the amendment.

That Congress must come to terms with the backlog is an understatement. According to the Congressional Research Service, the backlog grew by an estimated $1.7 billion in nominal dollars from FY 2007 to FY16, going from $9.6 billion in FY07 to $11.3 billion in FY16. Today it's estimated at somewhere between $11.6 billion and $12 billion, with about half that total associated with road repairs and half with park buildings, campgrounds, trails, and water and sewer systems, the CRS notes.

In offering his legislation, last week, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., portrayed it as an economic stimulus.

"This legislation will help address the over $11 billion maintenance backlog at our national parks, including the $215 million backlog of projects in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” Senator Alexander said. “The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of America’s greatest treasures – and it has a tremendous economic impact in East Tennessee, attracting nearly twice the visitors of any other national park. Addressing the maintenance backlog will help attract even more visitors and create more jobs for Tennesseans. We must continue to work together to find solutions to the many challenges facing our public lands, and this legislation takes an important step toward doing that."

When they introduced their legislation a year ago, Sens. Warner and Portman were more vocal in focusing on the need for properly maintaining the park system and its assets.

"More than 100 years after the founding of the National Park Service, our park system remains in a critical state of disrepair," Sen. Warner said when their legislation was introduced in March 2017. “While we’ve heard much talk here in Washington about infrastructure spending, a great way to begin this work is by helping in the revitalization of our public lands and the repair of critical roads and bridges, an investment which can generate $10 in economic activity for every public dollar invested. Our bipartisan legislation provides this needed investment by helping ensure that these historically diverse assets are preserved for future generations to enjoy. It also makes needed investments in NPS infrastructure, roads and bridges, like the Arlington Memorial Bridge, many of which are badly in need of repair.”

While the Senate Democrats' proposal shows concern for the maintenance needs across the public lands, it has no Republican support, and since Democrats are in the minority in the Senate, the odds of it gaining traction are faint. But Theresa Pierno, CEO and president of the National Parks Conservation Association, applauded its approach.

"Today’s Senate blueprint demonstrates we can fix our parks without compromising what makes them great. It’s proof that taking care of America’s parks doesn’t have to mean rolling back environmental protections or encouraging damaging drilling on public lands," she said last week in a passing dismissal of the Alexander-Simpson bill. "The Park Service’s $11.6 billion repair backlog is a critical problem that demands attention, but the administration’s proposals come at too great a cost by undermining vital environmental laws and potentially harming other public lands. By contrast, this blueprint would make substantive investment one of our parks’ greatest challenges, with none of those funds coming at the expense of our public lands and waters.

“If enacted, this will leave our parks stronger and better prepared to greet the millions of visitors that come every year. If the administration is serious about fixing our parks, it should start by supporting and urging Congress to enact proposals like the blueprint.”

Too, there is the question of whether addressing the Park Service's maintenance needs also includes expanding the human footprint in the parks. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican and cosponsor of the National Park Restoration Act, in the past has voiced concern over how the backlog impacts accessibility to public lands and has talked about expanding recreational facilities on public lands. Last September, while meeting with recreation interests aligned with the American Recreation Coalition, he listened to concerns about how outdated national park campgrounds are.

"Montanans are blessed to have America’s most beautiful national parks right outside our front doors,” he said last week when the Alexander-Simpson legislation was rolled out. “These critical economic drivers must be maintained and protected so that our outdoor economy can continue to grow and our parks remain accessible to all Montanans. This bipartisan bill is a commonsense step forward to ensure that the challenges facing our national parks are finally addressed."

Joining the politicians for the bill's announcement was Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who reiterated the economic worth of the National Park System to gateway communities and stated "how we can use energy revenue to rebuild and revitalize our parks and communities."

"Infrastructure is also about access for all Americans," the secretary continued. "Not all visitors to our parks have the ability to hike with a 30-pound pack and camp in the wilderness miles away from utilities. In order for families with young kids, elderly grandparents, or persons with disabilities to enjoy the parks, we need to rebuild basic infrastructure like roads, trails, lodges, restrooms and visitors centers."

Back at NPCA, Emily Douce, director of budget and appropriations, said, "there's not a ton of differences between the Legacy Act and this latest bill, except for one of our biggest concerns is the source of funding in the Alexander-Simpson bill. We appreciate that they're trying to find a way forward to try to get around the budget issues, but we don't see the certainty for that funding."

"They have told us, Sen. Alexander's office and Congressman Simpson's office, that it doesn't necessarily depend on new revenue, new (oil and gas) development, but it doesn't say that in the legislation," Ms. Douce added.

As far as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which draws its revenues from existing oil and gas development on public lands, the wording of the National Park Restoration Act directs that LWCF and other payments to states and the Reclamation Fund be addressed first before dollars when into the fund envisioned by the Alexander-Simpson bill. That alone could slow its ability to impact the backlog.

Taking a 30,000-foot view of the Trump administration's approach to caring for and managing public lands, there is a fear that the administration will move more aspects of managing those lands and operating the parks into the private sector and possibly putting them out of reach of some Americans.

"That's what we're scared of, that's what we're fighting for every day, to make sure that doesn't happen," said Ms. Douce. "Even if you look at the fees, and the proposal to increase fees, it's going to price people out of our parks. The budgets that they keep proposing, the administration, and Congress, give them a little bit of credit to try to raise the (NPS) budget under their constraints. But a 7 percent cut under the president's budget for the parks for this year ... it's misleading. You want to fix the backlog, but you're cutting the (NPS) operations (budget), which does help address the backlog as well.

"The messages are mixed here."

Moving forward, there seems so far to be a lack of interest in Congress overall to address the backlog. The Warner-Portman bill, despite having been introduced a year ago, has just 18 cosponsors. A companion bill in the House has 59 sponsors. Skopos Labs, which tracks legislation and predicts its fate, gave the House bill a 25 percent chance of passing, and the Senate version an 18 percent chance.

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A lot of talk.  For at least 2 decades the operational deficits at the park level have been a major issue that no administration has addressed and these deficits have lead us to this point.  

We will not wipe away deferred maintenance totally - getting to zero is not possible.  Prioritizing what needs to be tackled is key. Amazingly, the NPS is still increasing its ownership of buildings as measured by square footage - why isn't this number going down or at least holding steady?  The NPS has too much in its asset portfolio and it needs a serious program of getting rid of unneeded and low priority assets.  It also needs a complete overhaul of its contracting and acquisition processes in order to make any progress.  

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