Bipartisan Support To Fund Crumbling National Parks A ‘Watershed Moment’ For Congress
Sixty-six House members have signed onto a bill to bring immediate funding to the National Park Service’s (NPS) nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog through an all-of-the-above energy revenue stream in a rare show of bipartisanship.
The Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act boasts broad support across the West as well as the rest of the country. The bill has 37 Democratic co-sponsors and 29 Republican co-sponsors, with 24 representatives of both parties hailing from Western states.
Introduced by U.S. Reps. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the bill would establish an NPS Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund of up to $1.3 billion each fiscal year between 2019 and 2023, representing an amount equal to half of energy development revenues from oil, natural gas, coal, or alternative or renewable energy development on federal lands.
Four members of Colorado’s Congressional delegation have co-sponsored the bill so far. Democratic U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Ed Perlmutter along with Republican U.S. Reps. Scott Tipton and Doug Lamborn signed on to the bill in late July.
DeGette, who represents the City and County of Denver and nearby suburbs and is the dean of the Colorado delegation, is a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. She told Western Wire via email that the issue of infrastructure funding for the national parks is one area that sees clear bipartisan commitment, and that the Bishop-Grijalva bill taps “appropriate sources” for revenue.
“America’s public lands support a wide array of outdoor activities including camping, fishing, skiing and hiking. We benefit from their clean air and water, as do hundreds of species of wildlife, and visitors from around the world experience our natural landmarks and pristine wilderness,” DeGette said.
“Constantly maintaining these places is a Sisyphean task, and sufficient funding is needed to keep up with it all. This bill will help, using funds from a variety of appropriate sources. That’s something we can agree on regardless of our political party,” she added.
The Interior Department estimates the current backlog for infrastructure at approximately $11.7 billion. Of that figure, $4.6 billion is for parks and other areas in the West, representing 40 percent of the entire NPS backlog. Colorado’s portion, $238 million, includes $84 million for Rocky Mountain National Park.
The overall numbers for national park maintenance in Western states are staggering: Alaska, $105 million; Arizona, $532 million; California, $1.809 billion; North Dakota, $52 million; New Mexico, $123 million; Nevada, $223 million; Oregon, $116 million; South Dakota, $66 million; Utah, $266 million; Washington, $399 million; and Wyoming, $702 million.
Last week, speaking in front of a water pipeline project at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the time for prioritizing national park maintenance backlogs is now.
“Everyone loves our parks. I think it’s time now to prioritize,” Zinke said. “The president is a builder, and we need to rebuild our park system for the benefit of everyone.”
Zinke said he supported the Senate version of the bill that requires mandatory spending for five years, allowing NPS to “catch up” on deferred park maintenance. When asked about the Bishop-Grijalva bill, Zinke told reporters it represented a “watershed moment” in bipartisan politics.
Zinke said his time as a Congressman from Montana serving on the House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Bishop with Grijalva as the ranking member, indicated the importance of the breakthrough between opposing parties and personalities that national park funding represented.
“I sat in that committee. This is a watershed moment because they’ve been very complimentary to each other on this bill, which give me a lot of confidence. As divided as sometimes Washington is, maybe this is the spark,” Zinke said, “to put our nation’s needs ahead of the political positioning.”
“Our parks are $11.7 billion behind in infrastructure, about half of that is roads,” Zinke said. “Our parks are special. It’s not a Republican or Democrat issue, it’s an American issue.”
“When Grijalva and Bishop get together and both support a bill, as the Secretary, I shed a small tear,” Zinke said with a smile, pointing to the overwhelming support that national parks enjoy nationwide.
U.S. Reps. Jared Polis (D), Ken Buck (R), and Mike Coffman (R) have not yet commented on the House bill.
A similar bill in the U.S. Senate, introduced by U.S. Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and backed by Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), has 19 additional bipartisan co-sponsors, with 12 Republicans, 7 Democrats, and one independent joining the Restore Our Parks Act.
The bill calls for setting aside revenues already derived from energy royalties from oil and natural gas, wind, and solar for a Public Lands Restoration Fund.
“This legislation could do more to restore national parks than anything that has happened in the last half-century, and the reason we need to restore them is so Americans can enjoy the 417 sites—from the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Grand Canyon to Yosemite – for generations to come,” Alexander said in July.
“Too many roads, trails, campgrounds and visitor centers are in bad shape, and American families spending their vacations in our national parks are disappointed and sometimes shocked to find that they are in such bad shape or even closed,” Alexander continued. The backlog for some parks is ten times the annual appropriation the park normally sees, he said.
“The backlog of projects comes with a big price tag – one that cannot be addressed with annual appropriations alone. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the maintenance backlog is $215 million. Each year, the Smokies receives $20 million in annual appropriations. That means the backlog at the Smokies is 10 times what the park receives in annual funding. Without a new funding source, how will the National Park Service ever be able to conquer the $11.6 billion deferred maintenance backlog?” Alexander added.
Heinrich, who also a co-sponsor of the earlier National Park Restoration Act that also planned funding for NPS maintenance, described the importance of New Mexico’s natural wonders and cultural heritage to the state’s economy.
“From the ancient wonders in Chaco Culture National Historical Park and caves in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, our national parks in New Mexico offer endless opportunities to explore our nation’s natural and historical treasures and fuel our thriving outdoor recreation economy,” Heinrich said in March.
He noted the bill has gained support from the National Parks Conservation Association, the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Restore America’s Parks Campaign, and the Outdoor Industry Association.
Both of Colorado’s Senate members, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D) and U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (R) have co-sponsored the bill. U.S. Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) round out Western support.