Our national parks need updates; Congress can help
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Ready for your national park summer vacation? Here’s a helpful gear list: tent, hiking boots, fly rod, tool belt, backhoe…

Wait — what?

OK, you don’t need to bring your own backhoe. But it couldn’t hurt. In many of the more than 400 sites in the National Park System, potholed roads, out-of-service restrooms, shuttered historic homes, closed trails, broken HVAC systems, and electrical fire hazards are degrading the visitor experience — in large part because of shortfalls in congressional funding needed to maintain the National Park Service’s aging infrastructure.


The result? A backlog of restoration projects — many in highly visited areas — with a price tag of approximately $11.3 billion.

The parks celebrate our country’s natural splendor and history, telling the stories of remarkable people and events through special places such as Native American pueblos, Gettysburg National Military Park, and the Statue of Liberty. They also play a critical role in safeguarding plants and wildlife, providing recreation to visitors, and creating economic opportunities for local communities.

These places, managed by the National Park Service for the past century, are a testament to congressional leadership in their creation and oversight in their growth. However, in the past few decades, funding for national park maintenance needs has been inconsistent and even neglectful, far from the careful stewardship of the past. Our parks have fallen into disrepair, an inappropriate tribute to the people, ideals, and lessons that led to their foundation.

And by failing to sufficiently provide consistent park maintenance funding, Congress is also taking for granted the record 331 million visitors welcomed by the National Park System in 2016 — and the significant economic benefit they bring to the communities surrounding the parks. Last year, park visitors spent $18.4 billion in nearby communities, according to NPS data, and their visits generated $34.9 billion in cumulative economic output and 318,000 jobs nationwide.

Fortunately, some members of Congress are taking notice.

The National Park Service Legacy Act — introduced in the Senate by Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley: Apple, Barr clash over Pensacola shooter's phone | Senate bill would boost Huawei alternatives | DHS orders agencies to fix Microsoft vulnerability | Chrome to phase out tracking cookies Senators offer bill to create alternatives to Huawei in 5G tech Sen. Warner calls on State Department to take measures to protect against cyberattacks MORE (D-Va.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanHillicon Valley: Biden calls for revoking tech legal shield | DHS chief 'fully expects' Russia to try to interfere in 2020 | Smaller companies testify against Big Tech 'monopoly power' Bipartisan group of senators introduces legislation to boost state cybersecurity leadership Senate approves Trump trade deal with Canada, Mexico MORE (R-Ohio) and in the House of Representatives by Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Derek KilmerDerek Christian KilmerHouse extends Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress for another year Progressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to testify on Libra | Extremists find home on Telegram app | Warren blasts Facebook for not removing anti-Biden ad | California outlaws facial recognition in police body cameras | China rips US tech sanctions MORE (D-Wash.) —would direct annual federal funding to national park deferred maintenance needs and provide incentives for private-public matching, in an effort to ensure that the NPS has the predictable resources needed to preserve our natural, cultural, and historical sites for future generations.

Representative Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, has introduced a similar proposal to provide dedicated annual funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and for deferred maintenance in the parks and other federal land agencies. And congressional committees that will be involved with any potential infrastructure proposals are discussing how to address the parks’ needs.

Communities around the country are cheering on this progress. Almost 1,900 businesses and local officials, representing all 50 states, signed a letter April 4 urging the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees to make repairing our national parks a priority, and calling on lawmakers to provide reliable resources to address deferred maintenance. And almost 100 cities and counties from around the country have passed resolutions asking Congress to take similar steps.

Our national parks honor past presidents, military veterans, civil rights activists, tribal leaders, conservation visionaries, and many other great Americans. That alone is reason to restore the parks. But addressing deferred maintenance will also ensure that park visitors continue to have positive, safe experiences, and spend money in cities and towns near park sites. As an added bonus, by funding these critical repairs Congress will help create infrastructure-related jobs.

The message is clear: Investing in our national parks is good for the preservation of our nation’s history — and for our economy.

Tom Wathen leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ocean and lands conservation projects in the United States. 

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