A conservative approach to restoring our national parks

From Teddy Roosevelt to Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and beyond, the Republican Party has been the party of environmental conservation. Republicans throughout history have understood the importance of our natural environment and the inherent value in it. Perhaps the most prominent example is the creation of the National Park Service.

The National Park Service provides Americans with access to recreation, sportsmanship, economic opportunity and the rich history of the greatest nation the world has ever seen. Today, 103 years since its founding, however, our parks are in dire need of revitalization. Due to spikes in visitation and ongoing budgeting issues, the maintenance backlog has risen to $11.6 billion across the NPS. The problem has become so bad that the NPS did a video campaign to draw attention from Americans to the issue.

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The NPS has attempted to address the problem by implementing small fee hikes at the parks, but it won’t be nearly enough to correct the issue. There is a path to restoring the NPS, and it comes down to both catching up on the backlog and fixing the problem that caused the buildup in the first place.

First and foremost, the backlog must be broken — and with the backlog being as high as it is, the fee structure is unlikely to be able to break it alone. Without additional funding, many of our parks could reach a point of no repair, stripping away the value and history of our parks. Congress should allocate a substantial amount of funding to the NPS backlog to get the parks back on track.

One solution on the table is the Restore Our Parks Act (S. 500). This bill would establish a fund to address the NPS maintenance backlog. The funding would come from 50 percent of federal energy development direct revenue and can contribute up to 1.3 billion to the fund for 5 years. Bills like this establish much-needed funding for the parks and minimize tax dollar impact by using a different revenue stream. 

The next step is addressing the problem with the revenue system of the NPS itself. Currently, 115 parks charge entry fees and although they are allowed to keep 80 percent of their fees in the parks, they are not allowed to spend most of it as they deem fit. Parks are required to put 55 percent of their revenues toward backlog maintenance. Although this sounds reasonable, it doesn't allow for much room to conduct preventive maintenance and, in turn, might actually be making the backlog worse.

The NPS is also required to seek congressional approval for new park fee structures. This has caused many parks to avoid changing their fees. Parks should be allowed to set their own fees and put revenue towards work they deem necessary. By doing this, parks would be able to conduct preventive maintenance more than they can now.

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PERC, a free-market environmental research institute, says parks should also embrace public-private partnerships through contract work. By contracting infrastructure development and maintenance, parks would be able to “bundle” costs and end up cutting costs significantly as opposed to contracting work for individual projects as it is often done now. For example, if Yellowstone contracted all waterline work to one company to build and maintain for 15 years, the contractor would deliver a “wholesale” style pricepoint significantly lower than if built and maintained traditionally. This has been seen in several state projects such as Pennsylvania’s Rapid Bridge Replacement Project.

Our national parks are essential in the fabric of the American spirit. The NPS deferred maintenance backlog can be broken, but it is going to take the help of Congress, new management strategies, and the American people. Our national parks have inherent value and conservatives for over a hundred years have understood this. It is imperative that we pass along the history, beauty and recreation that our parks hold for many generations to come.

Nick Lindquist is the National Policy Director at American Conservation Coalition.Follow him on Twitter at @nick_lindquist. The views expressed by contributors are their own and not necessarily the view of the American Conservation Coalition.