Congress Adds New National Parks to System in Decline

Published July 30, 2015

Despite an $11.5 billion maintenance backlog marring visitor experiences at national parks and leaving important maintenance projects unaddressed, the federal government continues to add new properties to the park system.

            The parks are managed by the National Park Service (NPS), a division of the Department of the Interior.

            As of September 2014, the NPS maintenance backlog at the crown jewel of the park system, Yellowstone National Park, topped $656 million. Yosemite and Grand Canyon National Parks had maintenance backlogs of more than $552 million and $329 million, respectively.

Deficient Roads, Bridges

According to the NPS, 90 percent of national park roadways are in fair or poor condition, and 28 bridges accessible by the public are classified as “structurally deficient.” Thirty-six percent of the 18,600 miles of trails in the nation’s national parks are in “poor” or “seriously deficient” condition.

            Shawn Regan, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center, testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Federal Lands in April 2015 regarding the deferred maintenance projects in the park system. He told the committee NPS needs $200 million to repair water lines at the Grand Canyon National Park and $20 million to repair Yellowstone’s waste water facilities.

Adding to the Burden

Despite being unable to maintain existing parks, the federal government recently expanded the park system. Tucked inside the December 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was an unrelated public lands package resulting in a significant expansion of lands under the National Park Service. The bill established seven sites as national park units, including parts of the Underground Railroad in Maryland and the Tule Springs Fossil Beds in Las Vegas, adding an additional 120,000 acres to the National Park System.

            Several lawmakers took to the floor to protest the inclusion of the seven new parks in NDAA, including then-Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), who argued the nation’s parks are “falling apart.” Coburn urged lawmakers to “preserve what we’ve already invested in,” rather than expand the park system.

LWCF Expiration Nears

In September of this year, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act (LWCF) will expire. The LWCF funds federal land acquisition with proceeds from oil and gas leases, and Congress will have to decide whether to reauthorize the act and on what terms.

            Bette Grande, a former North Dakota state legislator and a research fellow at The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News, says states would be better stewards of national park resources.

            “The states should be in charge because it is a local control issue,” Grande said. “People closest to the needs will manage then better every time. Just as farmers and ranchers are the best managers of their land and judge of how it should be used, a state park system should handle the issue better than a one-size-fits-all way of taking care of the various park systems across the country.”

            Grande says there’s no reason to continue adding new land to the federal estate.

            “The Founding Fathers did not want the government to own the land; it was meant to be settled and owned by the people,” Grande said. “So the best answer at this time to address the debt of the federal government and its inability to manage and maintain the land it owns is to begin transferring the land to the states.” 

Murkowski Calls for Reform

When the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on reauthorizing LWCF in April, the committee chairman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), signaled support for greater state involvement.

            Murkowski told her colleagues, “I believe states need to be given the opportunity to lead here. States are in the best position to understand and accommodate the needs of our citizens.”

            Murkowski also said Congress should focus on land maintenance instead of new acquisitions.

            “As we look to reauthorize LWCF, I believe it makes sense to shift the federal focus away from land acquisition, particularly in Western states, toward maintaining and enhancing the accessibility and quality of the resources that we have,” Murkowski said.

Ann N. Purvis ([email protected]) is an attorney in Dallas, Texas.