Park Service buys more land, maintains less

Published January 1, 2001

The National Park Service, facing a $5 billion repair and maintenance backlog at America’s national parks, continues to spend more money buying new land than to repair and maintain what it already owns. The maintenance backlog is growing at the rate of $500 million a year.

Sewage, mildew, leaks plague parks

Yellowstone National Park is most prominent on the list of ailing national parks. Its sewage treatment system lacks the capacity to treat the 270 million gallons of waste produced by 3 million park visitors per year, according to an Associated Press report. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of untreated sewage are disposed of on park meadow grounds. Park Service personnel have located 142 water and sewer problems in the park, for which repairs would cost an estimated $30 million—slightly more than the park’s entire annual operating budget.

Things are not much better at Grand Canyon National Park, where the water system requires replacement, at an estimated cost of $20 to $25 million. At Gettysburg National Military Park, rare Civil War artifacts are being destroyed by mildew and rot. The Going-to-the-Sun Highway at Glacier National Park is crumbling and may be closed, while a seawall intended to protect monument grounds at the Capital Mall from Potomac River waters leaks.

At Pecos National Historic Park, a Native American pueblo city in New Mexico recently expanded by donation from 300 acres to 6,000 acres, at least $43 million in repairs is required. There is no money to display some 300,000 ancient Indian artifacts. The Chicago Tribune reports the artifacts are stored in an oversized container referred to by the park superintendent as “the Park Service’s add-a-shack program.”

Who’s to blame?

For fiscal year 2000, Congress appropriated $221.2 million for park repairs, and a similar amount was budgeted for 2001. By contrast, funding for land acquisition under the Clinton-Gore administration’s Lands Legacy Initiative was $371.5 million in fiscal year 2000, and $317.5 million has been budgeted for 2001. These monies are to be spent on acquiring new Park Service properties, and also to fund open space acquisition projects undertaken by state and local government agencies.

Asked to explain the disparity between maintenance and acquisition funding, one Park Service official, who spoke with the Tribune on condition of anonymity, said, “It is important to the current administration to buy land to save it and to make the environmentalists happy.”

Present and former Park Service officials blame Congress for the funding shortfall for repair and maintenance activities. “This Congress’ record and the record of other Congresses for more than a decade has been execrable,” said Roger Kennedy, Park Service Director until 1996. “They have dishonored the trust, and we as citizens have joined in that by allowing them to do so.”

According to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), a private organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the national parks system, Congressional funding is inadequate on two fronts. First, NPCA contends, Congress has failed to fund the current multibillion-dollar infrastructure repair and maintenance shortfall. Second, Congressional appropriations are consistently at least $500 million below what is needed to maintain the infrastructure on an ongoing basis in order to prevent future maintenance backlogs.

NPCA contends the Park Service simply lacks the management ability to communicate its infrastructure needs to Congress. At the same time, no one in Congress has taken a leadership role to promote national parks funding, and the Clinton-Gore administration prefers to focus on headline-grabbing, high-profile projects rather than the more pedestrian day-to-day maintenance problems.

Despite its concern for the maintenance backlog, NPCA supported the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA), which would have established a 15-year, $45 billion trust to fund government efforts to acquire private land but made no provisions for maintenance. (See “CARA freight train rolls on,” Environment & Climate News, May 2000.)

Politics and bureaucracy

Congress is reluctant to provide additional funding, according to the Tribune‘s Park Service source, because it has not been given reliable cost estimates. The $5 billion said to be needed for infrastructure repairs is a “soft” number, the Park Service contends, based on a list of projects whose costs have not been reliably assessed. The Park Service does not have enough people with the skills needed to develop the numbers Congress wants. And even if Congress did fund the shortfall, the Service lacks personnel to do the necessary work itself or to supervise outside contractors.

Another reason for the maintenance funding shortfall, the Tribune reported, is that Congress routinely diverts portions of the Park Service’s repair appropriations to specific projects. A visitors’ center in Mississippi sought by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) and a Lincoln Library for Springfield, Illinois, supported by Sen. Dick Durbin (R-Illinois) were funded from Park Service repair appropriations. The Service is straining to respond to requests from nearly every Senator and Representative for projects in their states and districts, reported the Tribune.

“Get rid of the politics and the pork that is involved here,” the Park Service official told the Tribune. “Let us take a break and figure out what we need. Let the Park Service have the right people, without Congress and White House pressure.

“But that’s probably too much of a wish list.”

Maureen Martin is an environmental attorney in private practice in Chicago, Illinois.