U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R–UT) and ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D–AZ) introduced the bipartisan Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, which would establish a “National Park Service and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund.”
Using revenues from oil and gas fees and royalties on federal lands and from offshore oil and gas development on the federal estate, the bill would create a five-year, $6.5 billion fund to address longstanding maintenance and construction backlogs at the National Park Service (NPS), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Education.
Remedying Past Neglect
The NPS reports it has a backlog of $11.6 billion worth of needed repairs to critical facilities and roads after years of funding shortfalls.
The bill allocates up to $1.3 billion a year not already sequestered for other purposes, from coal, natural gas, oil, and alternative energy development on federal lands and waters, to select public lands maintenance.
Just over half of the funds for backlogged maintenance would be dedicated to refurbishing or repairing bridges, tunnels, parking areas, and paved roadways. The rest would go to a variety of other infrastructure repairs, such as buildings, housing, campgrounds, trails, water and wastewater systems, utility systems, dams, canals, marinas, monuments, fortifications, towers, and amphitheaters.
Improving the Parks
Surrounded by a bipartisan group of 11 representatives at a July 25 press conference announcing the bill, Chairman Bishop said the legislation was about treating valuable federal lands properly.
“Our parks are national treasures,” said Bishop in a press release. “Let’s start treating them that way.”
“The idea of dedicating energy development funds to conservation goes back to the creation of the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 1964,” said Grijalva in the joint press statement. “I’m pleased to join Chairman Bishop to add overdue maintenance and repair work at national parks and public lands to the list of projects eligible for this dedicated funding.”
Current Funding Sources
In 2015, NPS said, the agency received only 58 percent of the funding it needed just to keep the backlog of repairs from growing, much less to reduce it.
Although Interior Department agencies receive some funding for maintenance from park fees, donations, volunteer assistance, and other sources, park maintenance funding depends largely on congressional allocations. NPS’ total maintenance budget of about $1.182 billion for 2018 includes $260 million from entrance and recreation fees, $131 million from concessions franchise fee collections, $71 million from donations, and $284 million from the Federal Lands Transportation Program.
Praise from Conservation Groups
Several conservation organizations contributed comments to the House Natural Resources Committee press release, arguing the bill is necessary to improve the national park experience.
National parks have been neglected for too long, says Fred Ferguson, vice president of government relations of Vista Outdoor.
“For far too long, [national parks] have not received the care and attention worthy of America’s ‘Best Idea,'” Ferguson said in the joint press release. “Rep. Bishop’s bipartisan legislation … is the type of action and leadership needed for the parks to thrive for the next 100 years and beyond.”
Theresa Pierno, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, says the legislation would help ensure parks are safe for use.
“Our country’s national parks hold some of America’s most precious natural and cultural resources,” Pierno said in the press release. “Unfortunately, due to years of funding shortfalls, our most treasured places are plagued by outdated water infrastructure, crumbling trails, and decaying park facilities across the National Park System—nearly $12 billion in needed repairs.
“[W]ith the introduction of the Restore our Parks and Public Lands Act, Congress is one step closer to ensuring that our parks can continue to provide safe conditions for visitors while also protecting the resources that help tell our shared American story,” Pierno said.
Calls for Reforms
Nick Loris, the Herbert and Joyce Morgan fellow at The Heritage Foundation and a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News, says the federal government owns too much land and there are better ways to expand funding for park maintenance.
“The federal government has more land than it can effectively manage,” said Loris. “These projects simply aren’t sexy. Fixing a sewage system or filling in some potholes aren’t usually political priorities.
“Laws that guide NPS and federal land management should be revamped to provide local managers with more autonomy and flexibility to adjust user fees and contract out maintenance more easily through competitive bidding, as is done by our national laboratories,” Loris said.
Privatize Land, Repairs
Loris says selling some land is another good option.
“The Bureau of Land Management incorporates into its land management plans lists of lands suitable for disposal,” said Loris. “A reauthorized Federal Lands Transaction Facilitation Act could provide that funds generated from land sales go to departments with maintenance backlogs to undertake repairs.”
Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, says the government could save money by contracting out much of the maintenance work.
“Using private contractors for maintenance and repairs could cut costs by as much as half, avoiding NPS skimming off up to 25 percent of the funding for administrative overhead or perks or to provide employee on-site housing except in remote areas,” O’Toole said. “Tying maintenance budgets to user fees is another way to incentivize park managers to cut costs and keep facilities in tiptop condition.”
Duggan Flanakin ([email protected]) writes from Austin, Texas.