The week of April 21 thru 29 marked National Parks Week, a time to celebrate the natural wonders and unique cultural heritage our parks protect and put on display. This year’s National Parks Week couldn’t come at a more opportune time – that’s because right now proposals in Congress to dedicate funding for deferred maintenance in the National Parks are gaining momentum. It is appearing likely that Congress will this year solve one of the most pressing issues affecting the future of our national parks.
Deferred maintenance is a big problem for our parks. Currently there are thousands of scheduled maintenance projects that have gone undone – in some cases for years – due to funding shortfalls. The current deferred maintenance backlog totals $11.6 billion nationwide; for National Park System assets in Montana that figure is nearly $218 million.
That deferred maintenance affects the quality of the experience for visitors. No one is served when roads are in disrepair, historic buildings are neglected, visitor amenities can’t be maintained and campgrounds and trails are not accessible.
Part of the problem is that many parks are increasingly popular. Last year saw record visitation at both of Montana’s marquee park destinations – Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks – with 4.1 million and 3.3 million visitors respectively. But as visitation has increased at many park sites across the nation, funding for maintenance needs has not been increased accordingly. The result is the massive repair backlog plaguing our parks.
Fortunately, there is a real appetite in Congress to do something about this problem. Two proposals are being considered in Congress: The National Parks Legacy Act, and the National Parks Restoration Act. The latter is co-sponsored by Montana Sen. Steve Daines.
Both of these bills would dedicate a portion of federal onshore and offshore mineral royalty revenues that aren’t already obligated by law for other purposes, such as state funds and the Historic Preservation Fund, to be used each year for maintenance projects in the National Park System.
It is encouraging to see members of Congress on both sides of the aisle working together to address the park deferred maintenance issue. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has made this objective one of his major priorities, indicating that the Trump administration is also interested in working towards a solution.
This national park repair backlog has increased and compounded over time. Closed buildings, impassable trails and roads, outdated campgrounds, and unsafe water treatment systems can have an impact on visitor access and experience. This has the potential to negatively affect Montana’s tourism economy.
So, as we reflect on National Parks Week, please take a moment to thank our congressmen for their support of addressing deferred maintenance in our national parks. These assets are a legacy to all Montanans, and they’re worth protecting.