Visits to National Parks Continue to Rise While Maintenance Remains High
A new report from the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) shows that the National Park Service’s billions of dollars in deferred maintenance in parks across the country includes funding needs for hiking trails, visitor centers, and historic buildings. The breakdown comes out as the summer vacation season begins in earnest and outdoor recreation continues to increase in popularity.
According to PERC, park visitation has quadrupled since 1960 to nearly 331 million visits in both 2016 and 2017. Despite this increased popularity, federal funding for recreational resources has hovered around $3.5 billion per year without any corresponding growth to meet the demands of new visitors.
This has led to a high maintenance backlog. According to PERC, “According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, from 2006 to 2015 the park service received about $1 billion each year for maintenance projects—about one-third of the agency’s appropriations. This funding has not been sufficient to keep up with the maintenance needs of aging park assets and infrastructure, a factor that has contributed to the nearly $12 billion of deferred maintenance that has accumulated across the agency’s 419 units.”
The issue has drawn the attention of a growing number of members of Congress and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt who has admitted the problem requires major work. In an exclusive interview with Western Wire last week in Vail, Colo., Bernhardt said it is time to get creative to ensure National Parks are ready for a growing number of visitors.
“So, they had all this buildup before the parks’ centennial and all these things, and they went out and told the world, ‘hey, come to the parks, come to the parks!’ Fantastic. You know what they didn’t do? They didn’t put an ounce of infrastructure into making it [accessible],” said Bernhardt. “How are we going to deal with all of these people? So, our structure is not set up. And what we need to do is really be creative in that department.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has introduced the bipartisan “Restore Our Parks Act” that would direct $6.5 billion in federal funds along with up to $1.3 billion in year in energy development revenues to addressing the maintenance backlog. The legislation is expected to be marked up next week by the House Natural Resources Committee.
The bill, which is also supported by a number of leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidates including Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand, is desperately needed to support some of America’s most treasured sites according to a study published by Pew last year.
Many of the most iconic National Parks have tens of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance backlogs. The two parks with the greatest needs are Yosemite National Park in California ($582.7 million) and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho ($515.8 million) for 2017.
They are followed by Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona ($329.4 million), Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming ($178.6 million), Mount Rainier National Park in Washington ($175.8 million), Glacier National Park in Montana ($153.8 million).
Other prominent national parks with deferred maintenance include Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado ($84.2 million), Denali National Park in Alaska ($54.7 million), Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico ($46.8 million) and Mount Rushmore National Park in South Dakota ($13.9 million).
Western Wire examined some of the specific needs for Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Glacier and Rocky Mountain and found extensive needs across infrastructure for driving, historic and other buildings, trail upkeep, and other improvements:
For driving infrastructure such as roads, bridges and parking areas: Yosemite ($303.1 million), Yellowstone ($83 million), Grand Canyon ($109.7 million), Glacier ($85.4 million), and Rocky Mountain ($37.9 million).
For buildings including historic sites and visitors’ centers: Yosemite ($102.9 million), Yellowstone ($108.4 million), Grand Canyon ($27.9 million), Glacier ($37.4 million), Rocky Mountain ($12.7 million).
For trails and trail bridges: Yosemite ($23 million), Yellowstone ($20.9 million), Grand Canyon ($29 million), Glacier ($9.9 million), and Rocky Mountain ($17.1 million).
For landscapes and recreation spaces: Yosemite ($10.3 million), Yellowstone ($8 million), Grand Canyon ($2 million), Glacier ($3 million), and Rocky Mountain ($2.5 million).
For amphitheaters: Yosemite ($29,000), Yellowstone ($2.9 million), Glacier ($16,600), and Rocky Mountain ($935,500).
Last year, Bernhardt’s predecessor at Interior, Ryan Zinke, said the priority to fund major infrastructure at the nation’s parks spoke to the story the land, trails, and buildings told about the country itself.
“Our parks are $11.7 billion behind in infrastructure, about half of that is roads,” then-Interior Secretary Zinke said last August. “Our parks are special. It’s not a Republican or Democrat issue, it’s an American issue.”
The nation’s 417 parks, monuments and other units, Zinke said, tell a story.
“It’s not just a story of the West and beautiful country, the parks also tell a story about our battlefields, our civil rights, our women’s equality,” Zinke said.