In what would typically be the start of a busy tourist season, America’s national parks are starting to slowly reopen in the wake of COVID-19.
Facilities that would require people to be in close proximity, such as campgrounds and visitor centers, remain closed in the Great Smoky Mountains and Yellowstone National Parks. Others, such as Rocky Mountain National Park, are reducing the number of visitors that can be in the park on a given day and requiring reservations.
When Arches National Park reopened in May, it took just 3 hours to reach capacity. After that, visitors were turned away and told to try again later.
As parks continue to reopen to long lines of waiting visitors, we must address the $19 billion backlog of maintenance projects from so much wear and tear on our public lands.
To do just that, the Senate is considering the Great American Outdoors Act. This would fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund on an ongoing basis and would dedicate 50% of remaining revenues from energy development on federal land (up to $1.9 billion per year) to priority maintenance projects. This funding for maintenance would be set aside in the new National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund. Providing dedicated funding for maintenance is a promising step that would address pressing needs. It would also help ensure America’s public lands are preserved for future generations to enjoy.
The maintenance backlog is made up of an ever-growing list of unfinished repairs to campgrounds, bathrooms, visitor centers, roads, and bridges. The National Park Service accounts for nearly two-thirds of the backlog, with $12 billion in unmet maintenance needs in 2019 alone. That $12 billion is also about four times the budget Congress gave the National Park Service in 2019. Despite skyrocketing visitation to national parks in recent years, funding remains grossly inadequate. Something has to change to help maintain the parks in the face of increased wear and tear from so many visitors.
Funding for our national parks is subject to the messy and unpredictable political process, as Congress decides how much to appropriate to agencies like the National Park Service. Setting aside funding specifically for maintenance would help protect our parks from political budget fights that go on every year in Washington. No longer would crucial maintenance be subject to the whims of Congress. Instead, parks would have a dedicated source of funding, making them more resilient to political changes and better able to manage for the long term.
While the Land and Water Conservation Fund could be used to purchase federal lands, the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund must be spent on taking care of existing lands rather than acquiring new ones.
Recent research from the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University suggests that’s an important policy focus.
If you had projects on your own home that totaled four times your annual income, would you be focused on buying more houses or taking care of the one you have?
Before we continue to expand the federal estate, we should prioritize being good stewards over the lands we have. Working our way through the $19 billion maintenance backlog should take priority over purchasing any new lands.
America’s public lands are a treasured piece of our collective heritage. We need to preserve the lands we have to ensure they are protected for future generations. Providing dedicated funding for maintenance is a promising step that will make our parks less susceptible to politics. Americans love our public lands. It’s time we show that love and act as responsible stewards of this invaluable natural resource.
Megan Jenkins is the research director at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University and author of “Addressing the Maintenance Backlog on Federal Public Lands.”