America’s National Park System protects our natural treasures and cultural history while offering ample opportunity for recreation, education, and contemplation—from hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and exploring the country’s origins at Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia to reflecting on the fight for equality at Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta.
But our parks are in trouble. Some of the 400-plus sites the National Park Service (NPS) oversees date back more than a century. Wear and tear, along with aging infrastructure and inadequate annual maintenance funding, have left over half of the agency’s more than 75,000 assets in need of repair. The result is a backlog of repair needs totaling almost $12 billion, a portfolio that includes neglected historic buildings; crumbling roads; eroding trails; outdated and unsafe sewer, water, and electrical systems; and deteriorating monuments.
A recently released report—commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts and researched and written by the engineering, design, and project management firm AECOM—identifies three strategies that have the potential to cut the backlog by $3.7 billion over 10 years. The monies are intended to complement bipartisan legislation pending in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate—the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act (H.R. 1225) and the Public Lands Act (S. 500)—that would provide $6.5 billion over five years to address priority deferred maintenance projects.
The report, “Protecting Our Parks: A Strategic Approach to Reducing the Deferred Maintenance Backlog Facing the National Park Service,” recommends eliminating maintenance issues or in some cases transferring responsibility for them to other jurisdictions, finding innovative ways to generate revenue at the sites, and lessening future deferred maintenance by using technology to make park assets more durable and less costly to maintain.
Here’s a closer look at the three proposed strategies.
The report recommends transferring the management of some assets to other entities, for example by having a state or municipality assume responsibility for maintaining roads on National Park Service land that connect two segments of a non-NPS road. This would be a logical solution when local residents benefit more from the NPS road than park visitors do.
The report also considers potential long-term savings from the demolition of nonessential, underutilized buildings, as well as returning some nonessential paved trails, roads, and parking lots to nature. This approach has a potential savings of over $150 million; in total, the transfer-or-eliminate strategy could provide $1.2 billion in savings.
Cutting costs isn’t the only way to tackle the backlog. The report found that NPS can generate revenue by offering customized experiences, for example a virtual-reality headset that brings a battlefield alive with the sights and sounds of war, or virtual rangers who guide tours of historic sites.
Additional ideas for raising funds to fix our parks include posting a QR code at park sites, allowing visitors to donate money for deferred maintenance work, raising park fees during peak seasons, tolling NPS parkways that are used more by commuters than park visitors, and charging for customized park experiences. These solutions could help generate an additional $2.1 billion, which could help draw down the backlog.
Technology can also play a role in ensuring that repairs are needed less frequently. Using cutting-edge road material can prevent or postpone the cracking that leads to costly repairs. Roofs equipped to send alerts when they leak can protect buildings from interior water damage, while sensor technology can signal that attention is needed at park restrooms, allowing more efficient use of park staff.
So-called smart tech can also let rangers know when trash cans are full or repairs are needed—tasks that today account for significant staff time across miles of park terrain. Currently, many rangers must fill out time-consuming paperwork to track deferred maintenance. A mobile electronic system could save time and money by digitizing asset management and requiring fewer steps and ranger hours. These strategies could shave another $406 million off the deferred maintenance ledger, as well as potentially pre-empt repairs.
It is the responsibility of Congress to ensure that NPS has the resources it needs to fulfill its mission, and to meet that duty lawmakers should pass the Restore Our Parks and the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands acts to jump-start NPS’ efforts to draw down its backlog. But policymakers and the agency must consider a range of solutions to keep the backlog from escalating. The “Protecting Our Parks” report is intended to present some of these solutions and start this discussion.