Restore Our Parks Act Passes Committee, Ready for Senate Vote
A national parks bill with overwhelming bipartisan backing easily cleared a key Senate committee this week, likely putting the bill on a fast track for full Senate approval.
With a vote of 15-5, the Senate Natural Resources Committee approved The Restore Our Parks Act, which would divert a portion of the rents and fees generated by mineral and energy development on federal lands to address backlogged Natural Park Service maintenance.
“This bill would help address the multi-billion dollar deferred maintenance backlog at our National Parks. There is perhaps no better step we can take to protect those treasured places than sending this bill to the President in this Congress,” said committee chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R, Ak.).
As the National Parks Service is struggling to work through $12 billion in backlogged maintenance, including deferred repairs to roads, trials, and buildings at parks throughout the country, the act would provide more than $6.5 billion over five years to address the problem. It has so far received strong bipartisan support.
Since being introduced earlier this year, the Restore Our Parks Act has garnered impressive bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. It currently has 45 cosponsors in the Senate and 329 in the House. Western legislators from both political parties were original cosponsors of the bill, including Colorado Sens. Cory Gardner (R) and Michael Bennet (D) as well as both Montana Sens. Steve Daines (R) and Jon Tester (D) and Sen. Martin Heinrich [D-N.M.].
The measure is one of the most significant changes to the National Park Service in years and comes as visitor numbers set new records across the country.
“As our parks face years of record-breaking visitation, they are falling into disrepair,” said National Parks and Conservation Association President and CEO Theresa Pierno. “Billions of dollars are needed to fix parks’ crumbling roads, overgrown trails, broken water and sewer systems and outdated visitor centers. This isn’t the legacy we should be leaving for our children and grandchildren.”
Maine Sen. Angus King (I), who called the vote “an important, bipartisan step toward establishing lasting protections” for the Park Service, agreed.
“We have a collective responsibility to maintain this spirit of the wilderness in our National Parks – and this starts with the $12 billion maintenance backlog,” he continued. “Stewardship of our public lands is not a partisan issue, which is why I’m pleased that the Restore Our Parks Act passed our Committee with strong bipartisan support.”
Despite broad support for the proposal, the bill was still met with criticism from Sen. Mike Lee (R, Utah), who acknowledged the maintenance backlog, but argued that the Restore Our Park Acts was not the way to fix it.
“This bill deceives the taxpayer about how the funding is accounted for,” said Lee, who said that he was worried about the impact the bill would have on the federal budget.
“The receipts are not just sitting on a shelf somewhere in the treasury waiting for someone to dream up a way to spend them. They are deposited and spent every year. We are not just taking advantage of something that would otherwise be left idle,” he added.
Lee pushed for alternative funding sources to address the maintenance issue, such as raising fees for foreign visitors or dedicating a portion of Land and Water Conservation Fund funding presently earmarked for new land acquisition to park maintenance. While Lee urged the committee to direct the Government Accountability Office to study the impacts of increasing park entrance fees, they declined to adopt his motion.
The National Parks Conservation Association says it “strongly opposes” this amendment as it “imposes arbitrary costs on visitors with no research on the potential for pricing visitors out of their parks.”
Now that the bill has cleared committee hearings in the Senate, it will be up to Congressional leadership to schedule a Senate floor vote. Murkowski told the committee that she would push for the Senate to take up the legislation promptly.
The House Natural Resources Committee approved the legislation in June, but a full vote in the House has yet to be scheduled.
This summer, Western Wire profiled four national parks–Mesa Verde, Glacier, Arches and Canyonlands, and Chaco Canyon–showing how park staff balance long lists of needed maintenance against limited funds.