A Favorite of Coloradans, Mesa Verde Has Millions of Dollars in Deferred Maintenance
This is the first in a series of four stories profiling national parks. Read our second story on Glacier National Park here, our third story on Chaco Culture National Historical Park here, and our fourth story on Arches and Canyonlands National Parks here.
For many Coloradans, Mesa Verde is a local favorite–a place to hike, camp, and enjoy the outdoors. The 81 square mile park in southwestern Colorado is the site of remarkably well-preserved ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings, archeological sites, in addition got miles of hiking trails and many rock climbing sites. Unfortunately, like many national parks, it is also struggling to stay atop its lengthy maintenance list.
According to NPS statistics, Mesa Verde has more than $76 million in deferred maintenance—projects pushed back from year to year because of a lack of funding. The work is a continuing concern for park staff, who maintain not only roads and trails, but also visitors’ centers, informational signs, and infrastructure like water and sewer. They work to preserve the park and its structures from the ravages of weather and time.
This maintenance work isn’t glamorous, but it is essential. Established in 1906, Mesa Verde is older than the National Park Service (NPS) itself. Key park infrastructure, including the road into the park, was first built in the 1920s.
As a result, maintenance is a top concern for park superintendent Cliff Spencer, who tells Western Wire that he balances competing priorities by focusing on the visitor experience and spending on visitors centers, signage, and other amenities.
Unfortunately, the weather doesn’t always cooperate. This past winter, snowpack was 30-40 percent higher than usual, requiring extra manhours to shovel off roofs and keep roads open.
“I don’t know whose idea it was to build flat roofs, but it doesn’t work well in Colorado,” he said.
Many of the same areas require work year after year—not just roofs. The road into the park, for instance, was something park administrators complained about as far back as the 1930s, Spencer says, adding that it continues to require regular repair work today. All of this puts a strain on the park’s budget. Although the park puts together five year maintenance plans, some projects get pushed back because of a lack of funds.
“If we assess roofs and find that many are past their service lives, that becomes backlog maintenance, but we don’t have the money,” he said.
Part of the challenge is the age of the buildings.
“We are trying to make things work in the 21st century while respecting its history. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how thoroughly you inspect,” said Spencer. “Often times something you didn’t expect makes you go back to review the scope of the work and the budget.”
This maintenance backlog is part of why Rep. Scott Tipton (R), whose district includes the park, is supporting the Restore Our Parks Act. The proposed legislation would dedicate a portion of the royalty monies earned through oil, gas, coal, and renewable energy development on federal lands to establish a National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund. Already it has bipartisan support from other western members of Congress and a long list of co-sponsors.
Though the bill passed out of the House Natural Resources committee before the summer recess, legislators are still working to keep the issue—and parks like Mesa Verde—in the headlines. Montana Sen. Steve Daines (R) is hosting a field hearing on Thursday in Montana to discuss the bill and other ways to expand visitation to lesser-known national parks.
“As a native of Cortez, Colorado, Mesa Verde has always been a special place for my family and me,” Tipton told the Western Wire, explaining that the park has provided an opportunity for millions of modern visitors to learn about the culture of the ancestral Pueblo.
He sees the legislation as a way to ensure that the area is preserved and protected—and to support the area economy. Visitors to the park support small businesses in many of the surrounding towns. The money visitors spend on food, lodging, and forgotten supplies help to support 828 jobs in the local area and the economic impact of national parks has grown steadily since 2012.
“Mesa Verde contributes an estimated $72.4 million annually and is an irreplaceable source of revenue to the region,” he said.
Continuing this trend for another 7 years will require more hard work from NPS staff and volunteers. New federal funding would certainly help alleviate the burden. If passed, the Restore Our Parks Act could raise as much as $1.3 billion annually for park maintenance. That would go a long way toward helping keep trails open and buildings in good repair and that’s a benefit for both the state of Colorado and America as a whole.
“We must ensure the proper protection of this ancient site so that future generations may continue to enjoy it, and this is why passing the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act is so important,” he continued.