Bipartisan legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate in March to start catching up with a shameful $12 billion deferred-maintenance backlog in our national parks — the National Park Service Legacy Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio. We all should take time to encourage federal lawmakers and the president to support this long overdue reinvestment in these assets of premier national importance.
Locally, Lewis and Clark National Historical Park has nearly $1.5 million in overdue work to restore and maintain a bistate complex of facilities key to understanding America’s westward expansion and the ancient civilizations disrupted by our arrival. A result of intense involvement by local residents, helped by the Oregon and Washington state congressional delegations in the years surrounding the 2005-06 expedition bicentennial, Lewis and Clark should not have to languish until the tricentennial before again receiving the in-depth attention it needs.
Elsewhere in Oregon, Crater Lake National Park currently requires $84 million to catch up with the 21st century. The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument needs $1.6 million. Nez Perce National Historical Park has the smallest to-do list, a not-inconsiderable $133,000. Washington state, with substantially more national park assets than Oregon, has more than $500 million in work that ought to have been part of routine federal budgeting.
Like neglected dogs
This must become a top national priority. We simply aren’t fulfilling our responsibility to future generations when we treat these assets like neglected dogs to be chained outside and forgotten. As we observed years ago, weeds and duct-tape may be more truthful symbols of our nation’s parks than shaggy bears and wild ducks.
There’s plenty of blame to go around — not least the good intentions that lead Congress to designate new parks, but without forming a tangible plan for keeping them up. Our still-growing nation needs to set aside recreational and heritage lands for future generations, but it’s irresponsible to keep adding to parks if we’re unwilling to pay for upkeep.
This has been a matter of local concern for decades. In February 2007, when the maintenance backlog stood at $5 billion, we favorably commented on President George W. Bush’s Centennial Initiative to resolve the problem before the 100th birthday of the National Park Service in 2016. Aiming to raise $2 billion via private donations and matching federal funds, it ended up generating less than 1/20th that sum. It was wishful thinking. Funding essential park functions with donations was “an illusion,” a congressman commented at the time. “Our national parks are national treasures — and their funding is a national responsibility,” he said.
Fantasy of private funds
So what’s different about the new Senate legislation? It doesn’t rely on the fantasy of private funds for parks, but does encourage private-public collaborations. Private firms might, for example, be tasked with staffing park entry booths, freeing rangers to care for parklands and help visitors enjoy them.
It sets up an earmarked account, appropriately funded with revenues from oil, gas, coal and mineral extraction from federal lands. Eighty percent would go to repairs and rehabilitation. Twenty percent would pay for park roads, bridges and tunnels. Discretionary spending and land acquisition would not get any of this money.
President Donald Trump and new Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, formerly a Montana congressman, are fans of national parks. This week, Zinke noted a record 331 million visits were made to park facilities in 2016, producing $34.9 billion for the U.S. economy — $2.9 billion more than in 2015. National parks supported 318,000 U.S. jobs last year, he said.
“In the coming years, we will look at ways to make innovative investments in our parks to enhance visitor experiences and improve our aging infrastructure,” Zinke said.
But we don’t need to wait for “coming years.” The National Park Service Legacy Act is the tool we need today, a way to support many more jobs through reconstruction of obsolete park highways, bridges and other aging infrastructure like sewer and water systems. “These would be American jobs. American jobs to help restore our parks and help local communities — it’s hard to beat that,” according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Not everything needs to result in conflict. If we can’t all enthusiastically support national parks, just what can we support? Let’s get behind this initiative for the sake of our children and grandchildren.