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Fixing what is broken: A bipartisan solution for our national parks

Fixing what is broken: A bipartisan solution for our national parks
Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI)
The Hill
March 20, 2018

Bipartisanship is hard to come by in Washington on any given day, but it’s especially scarce during an election year. Yet on one issue, reducing the maintenance backlog for the National Parks Service (NPS), a bipartisan consensus has emerged, intent on solving this problem. This is encouraging news that will help improve access and enjoyment of our national parks for millions of Americans.

When Americans think of infrastructure, they think about the network of roads, highways and bridges that millions of people use every day to get to work, take their kids to school, and simply live. However, there’s more to the story. Americans don’t usually think about infrastructure in terms of America’s treasured national parks - but they should.

Underlying the beauty and serenity of our nation’s landscapes, a critical infrastructure network allows people from across the country and the world access to enjoy America’s national parks. But this infrastructure has been deteriorating over the years to a point where there now is an over $11 billion maintenance backlog for the NPS.

Infrastructure plays a larger role in our national parks than most people realize. The sheer amount and scale of assets owned by the NPS helps put the significant need to reduce the maintenance backlog in perspective. For instance, there are roughly 5,500 miles of paved roads in our parks (more public road miles than in the state of Hawaii), 1,700 bridges and tunnels (more than New York City), more than 17,000 miles of trails, and nearly 1,300 campgrounds. The NPS maintains more than 24,000 buildings (including over 500 visitor centers), 425 park lodges and hotel buildings, and 3,870 housing units all lit by more than 500 electrical systems. All of this is undergirded by 1,000 miles of water pipelines serving 1,500 water systems, 1,800 wastewater systems and 3,700 restrooms.

It’s obvious that the NPS’ infrastructure is massive. But much of it is languishing due to neglect, old age, and decades of misplaced priorities in Washington. We must do something to tackle this problem soon. With the recent NPS centennial spurring visitation, national parks are becoming more popular than ever, with 331 million visitors in 2017 alone.

In a way, this is a good problem to have. We want millions of people to continue visiting and loving our national parks every year. But we want every visitor to have a safe, high-quality, and enjoyable experience so they will return again at a future date. With an $11 billion maintenance backlog gnawing away at NPS and impacting visitor experience, those goals are jeopardized.

All sides agree that maintenance should be our top priority right now. That’s why Congress, the Department of the Interior, and the White House are coming together to support legislation to tackle this national challenge. After all, this isn’t a partisan issue; this is about prioritizing maintenance of the parks we all love and want to preserve for future generations.

Part of the solution is the creation of a dedicated fund that would draw a stable revenue stream from energy leases the federal government owns, as has been proposed in the President’s FY2019 budget. While some may object to using oil and gas leasing revenues to promote conservation, this isn’t a new idea. It has been a longstanding policy and priority of the United States to be good stewards of the revenues created by energy production to further conservation efforts. In fact, this is a similar type of funding method used in the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Our national parks are in need. We must revive these national treasures. Thankfully Congress, the Department of the Interior, and the White House are all aligned to create a fund that will help meet the daunting maintenance backlog our national parks are buckling under. The political will is there; the public supports this cause. Let’s work together to improve America’s parks now, and for future generations.

Bishop is Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Hanabusa is the Subcommittee on Federal Lands Ranking Member.