With bills on the table, Congress must heed the call to fix our national parks

With bills on the table, Congress must heed the call to fix our national parks
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Congress created the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916 and tasked it with caring for our nation’s treasured parks. As our National Park System begins its second century, it should be a showcase of smart technology, energy and cost efficiencies, and best practices in visitor and facility management. Instead, the NPS lacks the resources it needs to carry out its mission on behalf of the American people.

The NPS manages over 400 sites of significant natural and historic value across all 50 states and the U.S. territories.

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However, because of inconsistent annual funding as well as aging infrastructure at many parks, it has difficulty keeping pace with necessary repairs and currently has a maintenance backlog estimated at $11.6 billion. More than two-thirds of that total consists of priority needs, such as deteriorating historic buildings and employee housing; failing water and electrical systems; eroding trails; and crumbling roads.

 

The repair backlog degrades parks’ natural and cultural resources, diminishes the visitor experience, and harms the economies of nearby communities. So nearly3,000 local and national groups — businesses and chambers of commerce; cities and counties; veteran organizations; unions, builders, and contractor associations; and the travel, tourism, and recreation industries — have urged policymakers to take action to fix our parks.

Congress is listening. Three legislative measures introduced over the past year would direct more annual federal funding to park maintenance needs: 

These measures would use onshore and offshore mineral revenues that aren’t obligated for other purposes—such as the Historic Preservation Fund, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, or discretionary state funds—to finance park maintenance. This is not a new idea.

The Mineral Leasing Act and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act are decades-old statutes that authorize the Department of the Interior to charge royalties and fees to companies that develop oil and gas projects on federal lands or waters. Those payments go into the general treasury. 

We hope that the best provisions from the three deferred maintenance proposals, which share many of the same sponsors and co-sponsors, can be enacted as part of a legislative package in this Congress.

According to an analysis commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts, investing in park repairs would create or support 110,000 jobs nationwide. This would be in addition to the 318,000 jobs that were generated in 2016 as a result of over 330 million park visits.

These visits led to $35 billion in national economic output — demonstrating that in addition to educating Americans about our nation’s history and culture and providing unmatched opportunities for outdoor recreation, the National Park System can create jobs and strengthen the economies of nearby communities.

It is vital that Congress seize this opportunity to invest in our parks. Tens of millions of Americans come to the national parks expecting excellence, and the NPS should have the tools it needs to meet those expectations.

Tom Wathen leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ocean and lands conservation projects in the United States, and Marcia Argust directs Pew’s campaign to restore America’s parks.