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Congress May Finally Address $12B Maintenance Backlog Holding U.S. Parks and Public Lands Back

Gabriella Hoffman
by Gabriella Hoffman Read Profile arrow_right_alt

A bicameral, bipartisan group of lawmakers reintroduced the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act ( H.R. 1225) on the Senate Swamp in Washington, D.C. yesterday morning. A previous version of the bill, H.R. 6510, failed to pass last Congress.

The bill aims to rein in the nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog facing the National Park System and other Department of Interior public lands—including those under the purview of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and Bureau of Indian Education.

The new version of the bill has nearly 200 co-sponsors.

If passed, this bill will direct the National Park Service and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund in the U.S. Department of Treasury to collect deposits equal to “50 percent of all energy development revenues due and payable to the United States from oil, gas, coal, or alternative or renewable energy development on Federal land and water that would otherwise be credited, covered, or deposited as miscellaneous receipts under Federal law.”

80 percent of monies in the Fund, it notes, would be allocated for priority deferred maintenance projects and infrastructure deficiencies, while 10 percent of the Fund would be allocated to address National Wildlife Refuge System maintenance backlog across 562 NWR. Five percent of the Fund will be dedicated to addressing public access and recreation backlog on federal public lands, while the remaining five percent of the Fund will address the Bureau of Indian Education school construction and deferred maintenance backlogs.

The bill notes yearly deposits between 2020 to 2024 cannot exceed $1.3B. Members of Congress note these monies will come from royalties collected from federal onshore and offshore oil and gas leases.

The bill has received support from both Members of Congress and conservation groups.

“Our National Parks are in desperate need of repair with a 12 billion dollar maintenance backlog. Fixing the deferred maintenance in our National Park System is basic good governance – if we’re going to own parks we ought to pay for them. Fortunately, both sides of the aisle have come together on a solution. This bipartisan bill will put us on the path to improving our parks for future generations.”  House Natural Resource Committee Ranking Republican Rob Bishop (R-Utah)

“I grew up with Olympic National Park in my backyard and gained an appreciation for how much our national parks do to captivate visitors and create jobs. But many of our most iconic landscapes and historical buildings are falling into disrepair. I’m proud to join this bipartisan effort that will be an economic boost to rural communities and keep our parks accessible for future generations.”–U.S. Representative Derek Kilmer (D- Wash.)

“For more than a century, the National Park Service has been inspiring Americans to explore the natural beauty of our country. My visits to various national parks in Ohio have made it clear that we must pass this legislation to ensure that they have sufficient resources to maintain our national parks. I will continue to work with my bipartisan colleagues in the House and Senate to pass this bill so we can preserve these American treasures for generations to come.”–U.S.Senator Rob Portman (R- Ohio)

“Protecting and preserving our national parks isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue. It’s about protecting important pieces of our American story. With the deferred maintenance backlog now at nearly $12 billion dollars, more than half of all Park Service assets are now in critical need of repairs. In Virginia alone, that figure stands at $1.1 billion and it will only increase the longer Congress waits to take action. That’s why I will continue to work with my colleagues to pass the Restore Our Parks Act, so we can provide significant investments to protect our nation’s historic sites.”– U.S. Senator Mark R. Warner (D-Va.)

The National Park System comprises 61 national parks and totals 419 areas over 85 million acres.

Sadly, bipartisan mismanagement has befallen the National Park Service and similar Department of Interior-managed public lands.

President Trump and his Department of Interior have indicated they are serious about reducing this backlog, as actions indicate. Some argue Trump’s budget cuts will do a number on fixing this issue but the administration has done an adequate job of keeping National Park System areas open despite calls from Democrats to keep them closed during shut downs, for example.

One former national park ranger boldly called for partisanship to be taken out of the parks. He wrote:

The partisan gamesmanship over our national parks should make one thing clear: it’s time to get politics out of our parks. As a former park ranger, I know how politics can pervade parks and undermine the ability of local managers to sustain and protect them. Instead of politicizing our parks, we should be looking for ways to make them less vulnerable to Washington’s budget fights and ensure that they cannot be used as pawns to advance the agenda of any administration, whether Democrat or Republican.

Simply put, that means making parks less dependent on unreliable congressional appropriations. Today the National Park Service counts on Congress for the vast majority of its funding, yet Congress is notoriously stingy with park funding, regardless of which party is in control. This lack of funding has led to operational shortfalls and a deferred maintenance backlog of nearly $12 billion—four times the agency’s annual budget.

No one gets reelected for fixing a leaky wastewater system or for funding routine park operations, and politicians are often more interested in creating new parks than paying for existing ones.

The result: our national parks are weaponized in partisan budget battles and prone to management decisions motivated more by politics than prudence.

America’s parks and public lands seem to be the only things that bring Congress together. Let’s hope they seriously address this backlog and restore quality management to these timeless treasures.


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