Blue Hen Falls in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Photo provided by the National Park Service website.
WASHINGTON — During a Wednesday U.S. Senate hearing centered on national parks, administration officials outlined to senators how funding from the Great American Outdoors Act is starting to reduce the backlog of maintenance projects — even as visitation to parks has exploded.
An Interior Department official said that the most-loved parks are the ones that need help the most — 80% of deferred maintenance projects are in about 56 parks out of 420.
Congress provided additional funding for parks maintenance in the Great American Outdoors Act, but even that can’t keep up with the need, senators and witnesses said.
“We’ve made great strides, but more will have to be done to ensure that we keep America’s best idea alive and well for the next generation,” said Maine independent Sen. Angus King, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks, in his opening statement.
It also permanently guaranteed $900 million per year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which protects national parks, rivers, lakes, national forests and wildlife refuges from development.
King and the top Republican on the panel, Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, wanted an update from the witnesses on the backlog of park projects.
The witnesses included Shannon Estenoz, the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the Department of the Interior, and Chris French, the Deputy Chief of the National Forest System at USDA’s Forest Service.
King added that the hearing was an opportunity to understand the funding scope needed to clear the backlog of projects, but also help agencies properly staff as visitation to national parks has increased greatly amid the pandemic.
“I know that $9.5 billion is a large sum,” he said. “But it represents only a portion of the funding needed to eliminate the more than $25 billion – a current estimate – in deferred maintenance needs plaguing our public lands.”
Daines asked Estenoz how the agency prioritizes deferred maintenance projects and where those projects are most concentrated.
“There is a strong correlation between the most heavily visited parks and those that have the highest deferred maintenance,” she said.
French said that in 2020 there were about 168 million people who visited public lands managed by the Forest Service, an increase of 18 million visits from the previous year.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, pressed Estenoz for an explanation on the slow process of acquisitions for federal lands. He said that in his state, he’s found that it takes years for land to be appraised.
“It used to get done in a few months when it was done regionally, and when it got pulled back to D.C. it became a multi-year process,” he said.
She said that the timeline for land acquisitions that she’s seen shows it takes anywhere from six months to 36 months.
Sen. Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat, asked about two projects in his state — the low water levels of Lake Powell and road improvements needed for the SnowBowl Road that takes visitors to the highest mountain in Arizona, the Humphreys Summit.
Kelly said that the drought has reduced Lake Powell’s water levels by 22 feet, and only one boat ramp out of nearly a dozen is open due to low water levels or need of repair.
He said it’s one of the most visited lakes in the area, getting about 3 million visitors a year.
“This is crushing the tourism, economy and industry, in northern Arizona,” he said.
Estenoz said that $31 million in disaster funds will address the boat and utility issues for Lake Powell.
“The $31 million, I think, is going to give us a really good start on alleviating some of the pressure there,” she said.
French said that the total cost for repairing SnowBowl Road is between $9 million and $13 million. He added that with additional funding from the recently passed bipartisan infrastructure bill, the agency has the funds to repair that road, which was last paved in 1990.
At the close of the hearing, King addressed Estenoz, asking her to come up with a budget for yearly maintenance of parks and another budget for staffing. King said that he would try to advocate for those funds.
“Visitation is exploding and staffing is about where it was in 2013,” he said. “We’re not serving the public or these parks and recreation areas adequately if we’re not either maintaining them or staffing them.”
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