The Great American Outdoors (GAO) Act, enacted last August, marked the largest investment in the restoration of the National Park System, the National Forest System, Bureau of Land Management properties, the National Wildlife Refuge System, and Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools since World War II. The act also permanently finances the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which provides money for acquisition of federal lands and grants to states for park and recreation rehabilitation.
Over five years, the federal land agencies and BIE will receive up to $9.5 billion—not from taxpayers, but financed by mineral receipts from energy development on public lands and waters—to address priority repairs. The bulk of this investment—up to $6.65 billion over five years, or $1.3 billion annually—will go to the National Park Service (NPS), which manages the greatest number of physical assets and visitors among the recipient agencies. This interview with NPS Deputy Director of Operations Shawn Benge has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: The National Park Service, or NPS, manages over 400 sites and has a backlog of repairs estimated to cost $13 billion. What kind of repairs are we talking about?
A: Many of the roads, trails, restrooms, water treatment systems, and visitor facilities in national parks are aging and strained by a level of use they’re not designed to support.
Q: So will funding from the Great American Outdoors Act make a dent in this backlog?
A: The act’s National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund, or LRF, is an extraordinary opportunity for the park service to make crucial infrastructure investments so that people have safe and memorable experiences when they visit our parks.
Q: How much money will the park service get from this fund?
A: Under the act’s provisions, the NPS receives 70% of the Legacy Restoration Fund. That’s up to $1.3 billion each year, or up to $6.65 billion total, through 2025.This much-needed infusion will help us make meaningful progress in reducing our maintenance backlog, particularly by allowing us to address some of the largest and most expensive infrastructure projects.
Q: Since that money won’t cover the entire backlog, how do you prioritize your spending?
A: The maintenance backlog isn’t spread evenly among the parks, since larger parks and parks with high visitation tend to have more infrastructure and larger maintenance backlogs. So in 2021, we’re focusing Legacy Restoration Fund investments on projects that would substantially reduce deferred maintenance in sizable parks with considerable infrastructure along with those projects that would benefit the greatest number of visitors.
We’re also prioritizing projects that address health and safety issues and that make accessibility improvements for people with disabilities. There are financial considerations too, such as cost to maintain things over time and opportunities for public-private partnerships that would leverage federal funding with private dollars.
But, much like a home, park facilities will always need ongoing care and maintenance, so we’ll need to continue relying on traditional funding sources, such as entrance fees, annual congressional funding, and park partner fundraising, to address ongoing and long-term maintenance needs.
Q: Is there a way for people to find out exactly which projects you’re going to undertake this year?
A: The full list of projects funded in 2021 is available at Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA)/U.S. Department of the Interior (doi.gov). And the best way to track progress on specific projects is by visiting park websites and social media pages or nps.gov.
Q: And what about for next year?
A: We’re identifying, as a part of the normal budget process, the proposed projects for 2022 funding, and they’ll be included in the NPS Greenbook, a compilation of the agency’s budget needs and justifications.
Q: What steps is the park service taking to ensure effective implementation of funds from the Great American Outdoors Act?
A: The act has presented us with an important opportunity, so we want to maximize the impact of each and every dollar. We have a dedicated team focused on oversight and implementation of Legacy Restoration Fund projects across the park service. And we’re making sound investment decisions; we’re considering long-term operational commitments, because the GAO provides five years of funding; and we’re leveraging public-private partnerships so each project provides long-term value for the American people. To be as efficient and effective as possible, we are relying on existing processes, offices, and personnel to build program capacity and support where it’s needed while adapting existing procedures and tools to ensure projects stay within scope and schedule.
Q: You also have something called Preservation Maintenance Action Teams?
A: Yes, using the incredible skills and technical expertise of the park service’s Historic Preservation Training Center and the Historic Architecture and Engineering Center, we’re standing up 10 geographically based Preservation Maintenance Action Teams. These teams will focus on historic preservation and cyclic maintenance needs for cultural resources like historic buildings. And they’ll support small to medium-sized parks that aren’t usually well positioned to have the specialized expertise to develop and complete these projects in-house. We anticipate that over 40 parks will benefit from these teams as we pilot this concept for the park service.
Q: Do the infrastructure projects that the Great American Outdoors Act will fund have an economic impact on communities adjacent to national park sites?
A: Yes, the annual investment of up to $1.3 billion will in turn support jobs, businesses in local communities, and our national economy. A recent economic analysis estimates that Legacy Restoration Fund investments alone in 2021 will have an economic output of $3.2 billion; will add $1.7 billion to the national GDP; will support $1 billion in labor income, or the amount earned by employed workers; and will account for 15,350 job-years—that is, the number of jobs but not the number of workers supported by project expenditures.
Q: Is there a way for partners to help fund park repairs?
A: There are ample opportunities for the philanthropic community to partner with the park service, particularly by helping us sustain Legacy Restoration Fund investments in the future or by supporting other needs that the fund doesn’t address. We encourage partners to work with individual parks to identify these specific opportunities.