After dodging a blow that would have come with a government shutdown, the National Park Service is focused on a bigger challenge in Congress as it struggles to catch up with a maintenance backlog of more than $22 billion.
Just three years ago, when Congress enacted a law to provide up to $1.3 billion annually for five years to rebuild trails, roads, bridges, shelters, visitor centers and other facilities, the backlog was around $14 billion.
But the new management in the Biden administration decided the funds would be better spent on long-term solutions rather than short-term Band-Aid projects, and the needs are estimated to be $22.3 billion.
Some Republicans have reacted angrily, accusing the Park Service of “mismanagement,” while many others in Congress and advocates for the 425-unit system say they appreciate the transparency from a government agency expected to serve more than 312 million visitors this year.
“From a communications standpoint, I am sure no federal agency wants to have to say we’ve recalculated things and the problem is bigger than we thought it was,” said Dan Puskar, president and CEO of the Public Lands Alliance, which describes itself as the “nonprofit partners of America’s public lands.”
The bottom line, Puskar said, is this: “The federal government has not provided our national parks, forests and wildlife refuges with the funding equal to the interests and needs of the American people.”
Debate over the Park Service budget will come to a head again this fall, with House and Senate appropriators about $400 million apart on the Interior Department agency’s budget in their fiscal 2024 funding bills.
The House bill would provide about $3 billion for operations, a $436.3 million cut from fiscal 2023. The Senate’s Interior-Environment appropriations bill includes $3.5 billion in discretionary funds for the Park Service, still below the $3.8 billion requested by President Joe Biden. The figures don’t include the $1.3 billion in mandatory funding from the 2020 law.
A July 27 hearing of the House Natural Resources Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee gave a hint of what may be ahead. The subcommittee’s majority staff wrote a report for the hearing saying the parks are rife with “overgrown, unhealthy forests at high risk of wildfires,” “crumbling infrastructure” and “diminished access and opportunities for outdoor recreation.”
The staff said the near doubling of the maintenance backlog has been blamed on inflation and supply chain issues. “In reality, a significant portion of this increase is due to mismanagement on the part of NPS,” the report stated.
Subcommittee Chairman Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., opened the hearing with a similar attack.
“Americans continue to love their national parks, and they should, but the management stinks,” he said. “The lines are longer, employees continue to not show up for work in person, bathrooms are dirty, windows are broken and trails across the country are closed.”
The rest of the hearing proceeded amicably, with most members asking Deputy Director Mike Reynolds about issues at parks in their districts, and the word “mismanagement” never came up again.
“Mismanagement is not a word I would associate with what the National Park Service is trying to do with the limited resources it has,” Puskar said. “I think it’s worth recalling that since 2011 they’ve had a reduction in staff by 15% because of constraints on their budgets.”
“I don’t think that’s a fair characterization,” agreed Emily Douce, deputy vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group with more than 1.6 million members. “I think they have been working very hard to be transparent about the funding, how the money is being distributed across the country,” she said, adding that the 2020 law had already put about $4 billion into more than 100 major projects and 270 smaller ones in nearly all 50 states.
Park Service spokeswoman Kathy Kupper confirmed the data, saying that $3.9 billion has been authorized and $1.8 billion has been obligated for more than 100 large-scale projects that address $2.5 billion in deferred maintenance and repair needs.
“The NPS has extensive preventive and recurring maintenance needs resulting from aging infrastructure and heavy use which often exceeds the capacity for which it was designed,” she said.
A website listing the needs at all 63 major parks and some of the smaller units tells the story: Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park and the National Mall in Washington, D.C., each has more than $1 billion in needs.
The Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Kentucky has $3 million in deferred maintenance on its 13 buildings and 4 miles of trails, while the Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York needs $535 million, including about $2 million to repair the heating and air conditioning system in the statue itself.
At Yellowstone, unprecedented rains wiped out many trails and roads last summer, closing the entire park for nine days and requiring massive repairs in the northern section that took months.
At one point during the floods, an entire building that was used to house park employees washed into the river and drifted downstream.
The destruction was a pointed example of another major problem: Affordable housing is difficult to find in many park areas, making it hard to attract staff. Both the House and Senate appropriations bills would provide at least $5 million for new housing, and last year’s climate, tax and health care law set aside $500 million so the Park Service could add about 5,000 new employees to its current staff of around 20,000.
Reynolds, the Park Service deputy director, said at the July hearing that work on the maintenance backlog, housing construction and staff hiring is underway, with hopes of adding about 700 new employees in the next year or so.
“I realize that patience is thin, but we are really working fast,” he said.
While it is unlikely that the agency’s appropriations will see an increase for fiscal 2024, there are steps Congress could take to improve visitor experiences, said Jessica Turner, president of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, a business coalition.
One would be mandating real-time information systems for all the major parks so that people could find out about lines at park entrances or plan their visits for when there is less crowding, she said.
Appropriators also should eliminate provisions offered by Republicans to ban diversity, equity and inclusion programs, including events promoting gay rights or displays of LGBT flags at the parks, Turner said.
“We see this from the business side,” she said. “We’re trying to welcome more people to the outdoors.”
Puskar said Congress can take another critical step: avoid a government shutdown when the continuing resolution approved over the weekend expires Nov. 17.
“We have seen the effects on health and safety in parks when they’ve been shut or the gates have been open and the bathrooms are not,” he said. “The Great Smoky Mountains – their busiest time is fall.”