Interior Department Still Searching for Dollars for Park Maintenance

WASHINGTON (CN) – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s decision to abandon steep admission fee increases at national parks, while welcomed by many, will fail to defray billions of dollars in the cost of backlogged maintenance projects, Interior Department officials told lawmakers Tuesday.

The Interior Department’s deferred maintenance backlog – or a queue of restoration and repair projects awaiting an influx of federal dollars – currently totals $16 billion.

Zinke did not testify before members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Tuesday but Lena McDowall, deputy director for management and administration at the Parks Department, delivered a message similar to the one espoused by Zinke on April 12 when he declared a revision to his original park fee proposal.

Last week, Zinke said the Interior would only raise vehicle rates by $5 more. The decision came after the department received over 100,000 public comments slamming the original proposed increase to $70, up from an average of about $35.

While that decision was welcome, the department’s reliance on appropriated dollars alone is insufficient to fix crumbling infrastructure in parks across the U.S., McDowall said.

But the administration’s proposal to raise money by using profits from energy development on federal land and waters would curb that considerably, she said.

The Interior Department has suggested that revenue from oil and gas development would generate a multi-billion dollar windfall.

“Receipts would be derived from mineral leasing, oil, gas and coal … as well as solar, wind and geothermal development,” McDowall said.

While the budget estimate assumes such an initiative would result in $6.8 billion in expenditures over 10 years, using energy revenues could allow for as much as $18 billion to be made available.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, threw her support behind using oil and gas revenues to address the backlog but acknowledged even that may not be enough.

Philanthropic donations and public-private partnerships should also be a part of the department’s strategy, Murkowski said.

One of those strategies was supported by Shawn Regan, a research fellow and director of Publications Property and Environment Research Center, or PERC. Regan emphasized the important of “cyclic maintenance” as a way to stop projects from being deferred in the first place.

“Conservation at its core is about preserving and maintaining what you already own,” Regan said.

Neglect of waste water systems at Yosemite cause raw sewage to spill into park streams, he explained. The Grand Canyon’s 85-year old water distribution system breaks down often and can lead to water shortages and sometimes, park closures.

Congress is “unlikely to solve these problems from budgetary appropriations alone,” he said.

A report by PERC found that from 2004 to 2014, Congress averaged an appropriation of $521 million annually to projects  related to deferred maintenance – or, four percent of the agency’s total backlog.

“PERC estimates [Congress] would have to spend $700 million per year on deferred maintenance just to keep the backlog from growing,” he said.

According to Regan, the power to set fees or manage a park’s finances should be  placed within individual states and those individuals who actually manage the parks.

Currently, National Park Service policy bars fee revenues from being spent on recurring operational and maintenance needs. Instead, federal rules mandate park fees be spent on deferred maintenance and other non-recurring projects.

“By restricting user fee revenue for non-recurring, non-cyclic projects, the National Park Service is undermining the effectiveness of its fee authority granted by Congress. Park managers can generally only spend their funds on routine maintenance and can’t tap their fee revenues until maintenance projects become deferred,” Regan said.

The effect is an inadequate use of revenues for everyday operations, like maintaining safe roads inside parks or even plowing entry roads after a snow storm.

The committee will meet again in the coming weeks to more fully consider bipartisan legislation proposed by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Mark Warner, D-Virginia that earmarks energy development profit for the backlog.

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