David Bernhardt, confirmed in April as secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, has the diagnosis right when it comes to what’s ailing the National Park Service: a running $12 billion backlog of maintenance that threatens safety, enjoyment and the environment of our national parks.
His prescription, so far, is difficult to read.
Bernhardt in a recent address to senior park service officials decried the neglect. “Our parks are literally crumbling,” reported Yahoo News’ Alexander Nazaryan, noting a possible shift in message for the Interior chief from his earlier endorsement of drastic cuts to national parks funding in President Trump’s budget; cuts that Congress, thankfully, rejected.
Congress, however, has yet to adopt a solution to the maintenance backlog that is estimated between $11 billion and $12 billion. There is some skepticism, as pointed out in Nazaryan’s report, regarding the amount. A good half of that figure would go toward maintenance of the roads, highways, bridges and related infrastructure, through and along the national parks. But those roads are necessary to get people to the parks. And the estimate has been long accepted as accurate, and it’s the figure Congress has worked with when it’s discussed possible funding solutions.
While Bernhardt has implored Congress for more funding, his recent address appeared to suggest a search for new sources of revenue beyond Congress, which appropriates about 88 percent of the parks system’s budget, according to a 2015 analysis by the federal Government Accountability Office.
For some parks supporters that’s raised threats of increases in park entrance and other fees; broader marketing and commerical presence, in particular from concessionaires; and a move toward privatization, if not of parks, then for other public lands, such as national monuments, still important to recreation and conservation.
There are pitfalls and limitations with each, however.
Bernhardt’s predecessor, Ryan Zinke — before he resigned following ethics allegations — had proposed fee increases at national parks, only to abandon the effort later, perhaps because an increase to $70 per car, up from $25, would likely have turned away many families and would have only generated a small boost in revenue compared to the need.
The parks system also recently learned a lesson about the trust placed in profit-minded concessions companies. When National Parks didn’t renew a contract with one concessionaire at Yosemite National Park in 2015, it learned that the company, Delaware North, had earlier trademarked the names of historic sites at the park, including the Awanahee and Wawona hotels and the cabins at Camp Curry. Delaware North told the parks service it wanted $50 million for the trademarked names.
Not until a lawsuit was settled in July did the park system and its current contractor get those names back; at a cost of $12 million, nearly $4 million coming from the federal government, National Public Radio reported.
The leases of public lands to oil and gas companies are problematic, too. As the nation will need to consider the number and extent of fossil fuel leases as it addresses climate change, any significant increase of those leases — particularly on lands already intended to be placed in reserve for recreation and conservation by previous administrations — should be discouraged.
That should not preclude the use of royalties and fees for leases already in production, and that offers a source of revenue that Congress currently is considering for the national parks. It’s one that already is in use for another program: the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That fund, created in 1964, through the efforts of Everett’s Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, is financed not by taxpayers but by royalties from offshore oil drilling and has provided millions of dollars each year for the purchase and preservation of public land and water projects throughout the nation, development at national parks and matching grants for park and public lands projects at the state and local level.
Congress has legislation before it that would follow the LWCF model, using royalties from energy production on federal land, to begin to address the parks system’s maintenance needs. The Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act would allocate $1.3 billion in annual royalty payments from all energy development — including oil, gas, coal and alternative or renewable energy development on federal land — for a five-year period, up to $6.5 billion. Of that fund, 80 percent would go to the National Park Service’s backlog, 10 percent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 5 percent to the Bureau of Land Management and 5 percent to the Bureau of Indian Education for tribal school construction and maintenance.
The legislation in the House has 307 bipartisan cosponsors — that’s 57 percent of the chamber — and is supported by nine of Washington state’s 10 House members.
That and other solutions for preserving and caring for our National Parks System — which totals more than 400 sites, including the 61 major parks — can provide the needed revenue without pricing out American families from the parks, letting concessionaires run off with trademarks or auctioning off the lands, themselves.