Addressing Repair Backlog at National Parks Offers Congress Chance for Quick Win

Addressing Repair Backlog at National Parks Offers Congress Chance for Quick Win

With the House of Representatives expected to consider soon the public lands package recently passed by the Senate, now is the time to move on other unfinished business: the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act (H.R. 1225) and the Restore Our Parks Act (S. 500), which would address priority repairs at America’s aging—and in many cases deteriorating—national park facilities.

The National Park Service (NPS), which manages more than 400 sites across the country, faces a backlog of repairs that would cost nearly $12 billion to fix. Americans want well-maintained NPS sites, which became even more evident in the public reaction to the partial government shutdown’s impact on national parks and adjacent communities in December and January.

Many NPS-run national parks, battlefields, recreation areas, memorials, and historic sites are beset with issues ranging from outdated, unsafe electrical and drinking water systems to moldy historical buildings, eroding trails, and crumbling monuments. Examples include leaks in a 16-mile pipeline at the Grand Canyon that provides the only drinkable water at the national park; leaching septic tanks that are polluting the watershed in Maine’s Acadia National Park; an 80-year-old seawall that is sinking, leading to recurrent flooding along the Tidal Basin on the National Mall in Washington; and water-damaged walls inside Ebenezer Baptist Church at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta.

If not addressed soon, the degradation—born of decades of inconsistent funding, the pressure of hundreds of millions of visitors each year, and aging infrastructure that threatens visitor safety, access, and the vitality of nearby businesses—could lead to exponentially greater problems and costs.

The House bill, sponsored by Representatives Rob Bishop (R-UT) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA), and the Senate bill—sponsored by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Mark Warner (D-VA), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Angus King (I-ME)—were reintroduced earlier this month and would direct approximately $6.5 billion of unobligated oil and gas royalties to fund priority repairs in parks and other public lands. During the last Congress, a third of the Senate and over half the House co-sponsored these measures, which were also supported by the Trump administration; the two bills were reported out of committee but not enacted during the lame-duck session.

Americans favor funding for deferred maintenance. In a November poll, more than 75 percent of Americans said they supported legislation to fund park repairs, and since 2017 almost 3,000 organizations across the country—town and city councils, tourism boards, veterans groups, contractors and builders, businesses, conservation groups, chambers of commerce, tribes, outdoor retailers, and hotel and lodging associations—have asked Congress to dedicate more resources to address deferred maintenance.

That’s no surprise given what the parks mean to our history—and our economy. The National Park Service reported, based on fiscal year 2017 data, that visitors spent more than $18 billion in communities near or adjacent to the parks and that NPS sites supported 306,000 jobs. Further, a 2018 analysis commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts found that fully investing in park repairs could generate another 100,000 jobs.

The new Congress has a chance to rectify last year’s inaction on the bicameral, bipartisan Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act and the Restore Our Parks Act by moving them forward now. Fixing our park infrastructure is a smart investment that ensures visitor access and safety, and strong local communities. Quick legislative action would be a clear victory for current and future generations of park visitors who will experience these sites knowing that their country’s elected leaders had the foresight to preserve our natural and cultural treasures.

Marcia Argust directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to restore America’s parks, and Tom Wathen leads Pew’s ocean and land conservation projects that span the Americas.

Originally published on The Hill on February 25, 2019.