Our national parks are in the midst of a slow-motion funding crisis. But we can fix this backlog.
Author Wallace Stegner correctly called America’s national parks “the best idea we ever had” — an idea that reflects our nation at its best. For more than 100 years, the parks have protected places of majestic natural beauty, created opportunities to bask in peace and solitude, and provided occasions to experience and better understand our history.
But now our parks are in the midst of a slow-motion crisis.
An $11.6 billion facilities maintenance backlog has degraded visitor experiences and increased safety risks to some 330 million annual visitors to the 59 parks. There is a $100 million maintenance backlog at Ohio’s eight national park sites alone.
The water pipeline that supplies the Grand Canyon’s much-visited South Rim is in such disrepair that it presents not just an inconvenience but potential health risks. Aged artery roads in beloved parks including Yosemite are crumbling under today’s increased traffic volumes and frequently lack safety-enhancing shoulders and guardrails. The primary elevators at Carlsbad Cavern have been out of service since 2015. The Blue Ridge Parkway’s historic Bluffs Lodge is shuttered because of toxic mold and structural problems. And the list goes on.
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After years of debate and false starts (including a proposal to raise park entrance and user fees to levels that might have limited access for many), Congress has found a fair and effective way to help the National Park Service (NPS) undo the damage caused by years of neglect.
The Restore Our Parks Act, introduced in early July by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) along with a bipartisan group of Senators, could generate up to $6.5 billion over the next five years to make overdue repairs to our national parks. Those desperately needed funds would come from mineral rights fees paid to the federal government, including royalties from onshore and offshore oil and gas extraction, coal mining, and wind and solar operations on government land.
About two-thirds of this money would be used to repair non-transportation facilities, including historic buildings, visitor centers, trails, water systems, campsites, safety features and, yes, elevators. The remaining one-third would be used to fix roads and bridges across the national-park system.
A similar bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in late July, also with wide support from Democrats and Republicans.
And lest we forget, these natural preserves are prodigious economic engines. National-park visitors spent $18.2 billion in nearby communities in 2017, according to NPS data. That spending supported 306,000 jobs. The parks and other public lands — National Forests and Bureau of Land Management areas — are also critical to the $734 billion outdoor recreation industry. And, just this month, new data from Bureau of Economic Analysis ranked the outdoor recreation industry as one the nation’s largest sector — contributing 2.2 percent to the US GDP. The data also show that the outdoor recreation economy is growing at a rapid pace, exceeding even the booming U.S. economy overall.
The national parks and the ideal they represent must be supported today so they can share their gifts with generations to come. The growing maintenance backlog must be addressed and reversed before it hits an irreversible critical mass. Drawing on mineral rights fees to fund this much-needed work is equitable as it reduces the pressure to impose fee increases that might prevent some Americans from enjoying a piece of their birthright.
The Restore Our Parks Act isn’t a magic wand. Truly restoring the national parks to their glory will require something more — an ongoing commitment to fund the park system at levels that meet its needs and reflect its value to the nation. But enactment of this bipartisan legislation would be a great start.