Interior nominee Zinke must look beyond Congress to fix Park Service
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At his confirmation hearing, Department of the Interior secretary nominee Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mt.) promised that the National Park Service's maintenance backlog would be one of his top priorities as a Cabinet member in the incoming Trump administration.

Estimated at nearly $12 billion, the Park Service's maintenance backlog is now several times higher than the agency's total budget from Congress, and it has emerged as one of the major issues facing the Interior Department that Zinke, if confirmed, will soon lead.

"The president-elect is committed to a jobs and infrastructure bill," Zinke said in his opening statement before the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee on Tuesday, "and I am going to need your help in making sure that bill includes shoring up our nation's treasures."

But here's what Zinke, as the next secretary of the Interior, should know: If he wants to fix the national park deferred maintenance problem, he's going to have to look beyond Congress for solutions. Decades of neglect and misplaced priorities have made it clear that relying on Congress is hardly the solution; it's the root of the problem.

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Simply put, Congress does not prioritize maintenance in national parks. Fixing a leaky sewer system or a crumbling road is not the type of ribbon-cutting project that politicians jump to fund. So it should come as no surprise that funding for the deferred maintenance backlog makes up only a fraction of the annual appropriations the Park Service receives from Congress.

 

According to a recent report by PERC, Congress allocated just $521 million on average each year to deferred maintenance projects in national parks over the past decade — enough to cover only 4 percent of the agency’s total backlog. That amounts to a drop in the bucket when, by most estimates, the agency would have to spend at least $820 million each year just to keep the backlog from growing.

Merely increasing the Park Service's budget, however, is unlikely to solve the issue. In fact, an overreliance on Congress for funding will likely only make the problem worse.

That's because Congress would rather create new parks or acquire more land than fund routine maintenance projects.

This problem is underscored in a report released last week by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). The GAO notes that total inflation-adjusted funding for the National Park Service has remained largely flat over the last decade, yet the number of park units has grown significantly, from 390 in 2006 to 417 today.

"Some Park Service officials said that this increase in park units meant that the agency's appropriations had to be divided among an increasing number of units," the report notes.

Due to Congress's neglect, the maintenance backlog shows no signs of slowing. It has more than doubled since George W. Bush pledged to eliminate the backlog — then at $4.9 billion — when he took office in 2001. With more parks but little or no additional funding, the agency's resources are stretched thinner and thinner. Unless changes are made, the Park Service estimates the backlog will continue to increase as new units are created and its existing assets continue to deteriorate.

Ironically, Zinke's ardent support of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) may exacerbate the problem. In its current form, the federal portion of LWCF funds can only be used to acquire more federal lands, which increases the maintenance backlog. Zinke has opposed efforts to reform the LWCF in a way that ensures that it provides funding for maintenance needs on existing federal lands — not just simply to create new park units.

If Zinke wants to address the root of the issue, he's going to have to find ways to make the Park Service less reliant on an unreliable Congress, and he's going to have to stop supporting policies that make the problem worse. The recent report from Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) outlines several creative ideas that would do just that.

One solution is to rely more on park visitors, instead of Congress, for revenue. Most park user fees are retained and spent in the parks where they are collected, allowing local park managers to address the critical maintenance needs that matter most without depending on politicians in Washington. Much more could be done to allow park managers to set their own fee programs.

Other ideas, such as harnessing public-private partnerships and tapping the private sector to help maintain and operate parks, could also help — as long as park leaders are willing to think outside the box.

The backlog didn't happen in spite of Congress; it happened because of Congress. It's going to take creativity and real leadership to fix the underlying problem.

Here's hoping Ryan Zinke, as secretary of the Interior Department, is willing to provide that leadership.

Shawn Regan is a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), a nonprofit free-market environmental research institute in Bozeman, Montana, and a former backcountry ranger for the National Park Service.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.