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It's (finally) time to restore our parks

It's (finally) time to restore our parks
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In a tweet heard round the conservation community last week, President TrumpDonald John TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE called on Congress to send him a package of public lands funding bills. One of the bills in the new package, known as the Restore Our Parks Act, would provide significant resources to chip away at the nearly $20 billion needed to tackle overdue maintenance needs on America’s federal lands. Finally, after years of work, it appears Congress is actually preparing to commit dedicated funding to the upkeep of our national parks, forests and shared spaces. 

Despite our immense love for and pride in these public landscapes, decades of neglect have contributed to leaking water lines, dilapidated buildings and overgrown trails. Although congressional appropriations make up the vast majority of deferred maintenance funding, annual budgetary appropriations alone are unlikely to solve the problem. More secure and reliable funding is needed to care for and maintain existing public lands. 

Currently, the National Park Service alone has $11.9 billion of deferred maintenance projects, severely impairing the agency’s conservation goals. Leaking wastewater systems have polluted streams in Yellowstone and Yosemite. Band-Aid repairs on Grand Canyon National Park’s water distribution system have caused water shortages and facility closures. From historic buildings that need rehabilitation to failing bridges to deteriorating trails, we are losing access to the places we love. They are in dire need of repair. 

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The reality is that our public lands managers struggle to keep up with aging facilities and new acquisitions, given the current resources available for repair and maintenance. As Holly Fretwell, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), has testified before Congress, the deferred maintenance backlog is the result of not performing routine maintenance on time. The Restore Our Parks Act would help address the backlog needs without relying on the congressional appropriations process, providing policymakers the opportunity to look forward and make sure we avoid a future pileup of maintenance.

If President Trump and Congress are indeed able to get the bipartisan act across the finish line, it would establish a National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund sustained by deposits of up to $1.9 billion annually for five years. These dollars, derived from energy development on federal lands and waters, would serve as a dedicated revenue stream to address the deferred maintenance needs.

This proposal is innovative in that it provides immediate money for high-priority deferred maintenance projects, but it also uses market mechanisms to provide future funding. Any portion of the fund determined by the secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to be in excess of current deferred maintenance needs could be invested, and the interest earned would be available for spending on longer-term deferred maintenance challenges. Importantly, the fund cannot be used for land acquisition, which will help prevent further thinning of agencies’ management resources.

As we fill in one backlog hole, we must be careful not to dig another. With the Restore Our Parks Act helping to stop the bleeding of a severe deferred maintenance problem, policymakers should promote efforts to address routine maintenance needs to truly heal our parks system. Finding ways to enhance user fees and granting park managers greater flexibility in how they spend revenue from those fees can help avoid future burdens while getting the incentives right for connecting the user experience and conservation.  

As Congress moves forward on deferred maintenance funding, there is much to be excited about. Fully solving the backlog issue will require tackling the current backlog as well as ensuring that today’s routine maintenance needs do not become tomorrow’s deferred maintenance. It will take multiple creative approaches, and the Restore Our Parks Act is a fantastic opportunity to clean off the tarnish from our crown jewels. 

Hannah Downey is the policy director at PERC, the Property and Environment Research Center, a nonprofit institute in Bozeman, Mont., dedicated to improving environmental quality through property rights and markets.