Zinke: Time Is Now To Fund National Parks With Bipartisan Bills
The time for funding the nearly $12 billion national park maintenance backlog is now said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in front of Long’s Peak at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center at Rocky Mountain National Park on Sunday.
“Everyone loves our parks. I think it’s time now to prioritize,” Zinke said in his second trip to the park. “The president is a builder, and we need to rebuild our park system for the benefit of everyone.”
The Restore Our Parks Act, which enjoys bipartisan support, would set aside revenue already derived from energy royalties from oil and natural gas, wind, and solar for a National Park Service (NPS) and Public Lands Restoration Fund. The mandatory spending for five years would be used to “catch up” on deferred park maintenance, Zinke said.
“We are all of the above. We think that is a sustainable, appropriate revenue source for our public lands,” Zinke added.
U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) are cosponsoring the bill, as do Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.). Zinke said he hoped the bill would pick up additional support in the House, especially from the Colorado delegation.
Zinke called the House version of the bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a “watershed moment” in bipartisan efforts to fund the parks’ crumbling infrastructure.
“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.”
The nation’s park tell a story about America, according to Zinke, spread out over 417 parks, monuments, and other NPS units.
“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,” he continued.
The national park maintenance backlog for infrastructure is $11.7 billion. Approximately $4.6 billion of that is for parks in the West, or 40 percent of the entire NPS backlog. Colorado’s portion, $238 million, includes $84 million for Rocky Mountain National Park.
RMNP Superintendent Darla Sidles joined Zinke near the pipeline upgrade. The park, established in 1915, had more than 4.4 million visitors in 2017, Sidles said, making Rocky Mountain National Park the fourth most-visited park in the U.S.
The park has experienced a 40 percent jump in visitors, Sidles added, further straining the park’s older infrastructure.
“That has helped to catalyze some of the wear and tear on our infrastructure and facilities,” she said. Most of the park’s 500 buildings are historic, which increases the costs to maintain, Sidles said. That includes HVAC upgrades for the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center built in the 1960s, where Zinke met with reporters. Both officials offered their comments in front of a water system project already in progress, replacing corroded pipelines that serve many of the park’s critical buildings.
The $84 million in maintenance backlog touches just about every improvement in the park, according to Sidles.
“We have lots of needs, including campground upgrades, the five visitor centers, the campground amphitheaters, there are long list of things in need of repair or replacement,” she said.
Zinke said that many of the infrastructure needs, including water and sewage improvements similar to the project at RMNP, wouldn’t be seen by the 330 million visitors to the nation’s parks in 2017, but were critical to the safe and enjoyable operation of the parks. That includes asbestos mitigation and grappling with short building seasons within many of the parks due to seasonal weather.
“We can do a lot with this bill,” Zinke said. “Some of these projects are enormous.”
Zinke restated his support for relocating the Bureau of Land Management closer to communities out west, including Colorado. Also up for consideration for relocation, he added, is the U.S. Geological Survey, paired with a university.
Relocation criteria continues to include affordability, schools, outdoor recreation, and overall better quality of life, Zinke said.
“From there, we will look at what assets we have in those regions, and then we will compete it out,” Zinke explained.
Gardner, Bennet, and six of seven House members support relocating the BLM headquarters to the West, emphasizing their preference for a Colorado location.
Gardner called the national parks funding effort a critical investment.
“We are strong supporters of protecting these lands for the next generation and we know firsthand how important it is to make investments in our parks,” Gardner said. “It is critical that we provide the funding necessary to help address the billions of dollars in deferred maintenance that the park system is currently facing in Colorado and across the country.”
Zinke was in Colorado to meet with Southern Ute tribe members on Saturday and will be in Denver Monday.