Senate committee debates maintenance backlog

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee considered options for addressing the maintenance backlog on public lands during a hearing last week.

The $19.4 billion public lands maintenance backlog has plagued the Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service for years. The National Park Service’s $11.9 billion backlog garners significant press, but other agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, suffer from similar problems. The maintenance backlog for the National Wildlife Refuge System is currently $1.3 billion.

Lawmakers and witnesses offered possible solutions to provide the funding needed to tackle the extensive list of deferred maintenance projects. Suggestions included drawing funding from federal energy leasing revenues, increasing private-sector partnerships, expanding access fees and even a new tax on the outdoor recreation sector.

At the hearing, officials from the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service provided background on the maintenance and infrastructure needs on the public lands they oversee. For example, Interior is responsible for maintaining approximately 43,000 buildings, nearly 100,000

miles of road and 77,000 structures. Similarly, the Forest Service manages over 158,000 miles of trails around the country and only a quarter of them meet agency standards for safety and quality.

Witnesses from non-governmental organizations then offered their perspectives on viable solutions to close the gap between current annual appropriations and the funding needed for deferred maintenance.

For example, Dan Puskar, president and CEO of the Public Lands Alliance, stressed the value of public-private partnerships. “Dramatically increasing funds available for deferred maintenance is critical to success, yet Congress must help to build the agency’s capacities to responsibly manage these funds and complete the necessary projects,” he said. “Expanding their authority to lean upon the expertise of nonprofit partners is essential to that effort.”

Jessica Wahl, the executive director of Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, urged lawmakers to consider “new federal investment to maintain our shared public lands and waters, as well as key policies that effectively prioritize resources and facilitate public-private partnerships to help ease the maintenance backlog and significantly enhance the visitor experience.”

Sen. Martin Heinrich, (D-NM, a member of the committee, referenced the success of the North American wildlife conservation model and the excise taxes which fund state-based wildlife management, and suggested that such a model should be considered for the outdoor recreation sector as well.

Several senators and witnesses mentioned the Restore Our Parks Act (S. 500), introduced earlier this year, which would dedicate revenues from energy development on public land over the next five years into a maintenance fund for national parks. It was also introduced in the previous Congress, but did not advance.

The House is considering a similar proposal, the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act (H.R. 1225), which would put in place a similar mechanism to address the maintenance backlog and would extend the funding beyond parks to include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Education. The Natural Resources Committee was scheduled to debate the bill last week but postponed that discussion.

Header Image: The National Wildlife Refuge System faces a maintenance backlog of $1.3 billion, including maintenance on roads and trails, such as this road on the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge that washed out during a flood. ©USFWS