Senate subcommittee discusses national parks bill

By Madilyn Jarman

Popular parks like Yellowstone receive thousands of visitors a year, but National Park Service officials worry that aging infrastructure and outdated facilities are impeding public access and harming visitor experience. ©National Park Service/Jacob W. Frank

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks held a hearing on July 11 to discuss the Restore Our Parks Act (S. 3172). The bill currently has 11 cosponsors, nine of which announced their support just before or after the hearing.

“This would be the most significant piece of legislation in support of the national parks in over half a century,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, one of the original co-sponsors of the Restore Our Parks Act.

The National Park Service currently has about $11.6 billion dollars in deferred maintenance projects across the country. Projects include everything from repairing roads, replacing outdated plumbing and restoring historic buildings. Congress and previous administrations have tried to address the backlog before, but the problem has continued to grow.

The new bill combines elements of the National Park Service Legacy Act (S. 751) and the National Park Restoration Act (S. 2509). It would authorize up to $1.3 billion a year until 2023 to be put into a new National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund in order to address maintenance projects.

Lena McDowall, deputy director of management and administration, said the money would come from 50 percent of the nonobligated revenue from federal energy receipts. Up to $1.3 billion could be deposited a year from royalties on all types of energy development on federal lands. Since the bill specifies nonobligated revenue, existing programs that also draw funding from energy receipts, such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, would not be affected.

The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (H.R. 4647), would also use existing royalties from energy and mineral development on federal lands and waters. That bill proposes $1.3 annually to manage species of greatest conservation need in order to help recover populations before species become endangered. Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, wrote a letter to senators urging them to consider Recover America’s Wildlife Act, the Restore Our Parks Act and permanent reauthorization of LWCF as related aspects of American conservation.

That sentiment was shared by some senators on the committee after Alexander requested they limit amendments to the bill.

“I would urge us also to come together around some of the other things that, historically, we have been able to come together around, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund and taking care of our wildlife as well,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico.

Congress has tried to reduce the backlog several times in the past without success. The president’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal called for the creation of a Public Lands Infrastructure Fund, in part to help address the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog. However, the president’s plan would also provide money to other Interior agencies. Agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have an estimated $1.4 billion maintenance backlog, and the Bureau of Land Management has an estimated $810 million maintenance backlog.

The House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to consider the president’s budget proposal and other possible solutions in March. During the hearing witnesses said routine maintenance is often put off because of lack of sufficient operational funds, but problems slowly become more expensive. Many of these projects can have major impacts on visitor experience but are considered too unglamorous to draw enough support from private donors to make up the difference.

Madilyn Jarman is a Policy Communication Intern at The Wildlife Society. Read more of Madilyn's articles.

Share your thoughts on this article, and others, on our Facebook and Twitter pages.