The Renewable Resources Report

Roads to Ruin – The National Park Service’s $11 Billion Maintenance Backlog

The National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its centennial on August 25, 2016, marking a century of stewardship of America’s national parks and engagement of communities through recreation, conservation, and historic preservation. However, despite the immense popularity and significance of the National Park System, NPS faced $11.49 billion of deferred maintenance costs at the end of fiscal year 2014. As a comparison, the 2015 budget for the entire Department of Interior – the department that includes NPS – was $11.9 billion. Philip Walsh, a writer and researcher based in central Massachusetts, explored this budget crisis in a February 2016 article of the Landscape Architecture Magazine.

The park service has faced maintenance budget issues for decades, complicated by historical designations, varied funding sources, and a prioritization process that treat some assets preferentially.

The Tusayan Museum at Grand Canyon National Park.

The Tusayan Museum at Grand Canyon National Park.

The National Park System owns and manages thousands of structures. Even parks that consist largely of green spaces, which require little maintenance, are often built up with facilities to provide services to visitors. This includes roads and trails; infrastructure to provide basic services such as water, electricity, and waste treatment; and additional infrastructure for hospitality and recreational services. Many of these structures are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and others are eligible to be listed. This means that protocols for maintenance must consider preservation status, which often translates to increased costs for repairs and improvements.

NPS’s budget for maintenance, in addition to being underfunded, also comes from various sources. Matching funding sources to an appropriate project, Walsh notes, can be a fine art rather than a routine occurrence. The appropriation for the operation of NPS includes funds for maintenance projects with individual budgets of less than $1 million. Maintenance construction with budgets for more than $1 million is funded by the park service construction appropriation. The park also receives funds from the Federal Lands Transportation Program, and user fees help pay for specific visitor-based maintenance projects.

In addition to public funding, national parks also receive supplements from private philanthropy. The National Park Foundation, an independent nonprofit, leads these efforts through volunteer labor as well as millions of dollars in aid. However, little of this additional support goes towards maintenance. For example, as Walsh details, the Grand Teton National Park Foundation coordinated fundraising efforts to build a $22 million visitor center. The foundation funded new “front country” facilities, but the park itself assumed the cost of the less visible infrastructure needs. Private philanthropy avoids maintenance for a simple reason – donors typically want to see their gifts manifested in attractive infrastructure, rather than aiding the improvement of roads or sewer systems.

Finally, not all assets are considered equal in the National Park System. Teams within NPS systematically weigh each asset according to a set group of questions that evaluate empirical data, which then generates an asset priority index. Generally, assets with a direct impact on visitor use and enjoyment, as well as assets with health and safety concerns, are prioritized highly. This ensures that the star attractions of the parks are maintained to standards that are financially impossible to maintain for all assets in the park. As a result, the public often remains ignorant of the deferred maintenance problem and its consequences. When asked how low-priority assets make it onto the budget, the chief of facility maintenance at Acadia National Park in Maine responded, “They don’t.” This means that critical but seldom seen assets such as office space or housing for seasonal employees may never receive the funding they need.

So what can be done to address this maintenance backlog? Walsh explores several possible ways to increase park funding, but none seem to offer the solution that is needed. Many national parks remain free of charge, and even those that do charge an entrance fee have not raised their rates in as many as six years. Although visitors agree that the cost is very low compared to other tourist attractions, the process of raising user fees has been slow. Private, for-profit concessions that operate within the parks could also contribute more revenue. Currently, some concessionaires not only capitalize on the park service’s infrastructure investments, but also receive reimbursements from the park service for what would be their normal operating costs in a standard commercial environment. Revisiting the concession system could open new channels for park funding.

Walsh concludes by noting that the budget for NPS’s centennial year has been given several boosts, including a three-year program of $100 million installments that are projected to move the maintenance backlog below the quarter-billion-dollar mark over a 10-year period. That, however, still leaves our National Park System – which many view as an integral part of the American experience – with extensive maintenance needs.

For the complete article, originally published in the February 2016 (Vol 106, No 2) issue of the Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM), visit LAM is a publication of the American Society of Landscape Architects, a member organization of RNRF.

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