National parks struggling with maintenance would get a boost under Biden budget request

By: - June 5, 2021 10:00 am

The Mississippi River carries farm fertilizers to the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Basic needs at the largest U.S. national parks top the Biden administration’s first proposed lists of projects to receive funding through public lands trust funds, showing how much maintenance is needed even as parks brace for record numbers of visitors this summer.

The projects likely wouldn’t be visible to the usual tourist, but they are essential to keep national parks functioning after a pandemic year in which many Americans rediscovered their love of the outdoors. 

“The list shows the extent of the disrepairs, with numerous projects that address basic clean water issues,” said John Garder, director for budget and appropriations at the National Parks Conservation Association, a group that advocates for national parks.

In its budget proposal last week, the administration included a list of proposed grants for the National Park Service and other Interior Department and Forest Service sites. The grants would come through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, or LWCF, and the National Parks and Public Lands and Legacy Restoration Fund, or LRF.

Mississippi River, prairie projects receive funding requests

Iowa doesn’t have any national parks within its borders but the Biden administration has proposed funding for two projects in the state.

The requests include $1.5 million for work on 500 acres in the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Also included is $500,000 for work in the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge across 120 acres in Iowa and Minnesota. 

The Northern Tallgrass Prairie, established in 2000, includes western Minnesota and roughly the northwest quarter of Iowa. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is working with landowners to preserve the small amount of prairie that is left, and to restore some of it. The long-term goal is to protect 77,000 acres.

FWS’ Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1924, covers 240,000 acres and is one of the largest floodplain habitats in the country. It spans 251 river miles.

The refuge is being managed to preserve wetlands and bird habitat.

By Perry Beeman

In the landmark Great American Outdoors Act, enacted in 2020, Congress stabilized the funding stream for the LWCF at $900 million annually. The law also created the LRF to provide $1.9 billion per year over five years to address deferred maintenance in national parks, national forests and other sites.

A 2018 National Park Service study found about $12 billion of overdue maintenance in the agency.

The administration’s proposed requests would pay for improvements at many of the nation’s most visited parks, including Acadia in Maine, the Everglades in Florida, Glacier in Montana, Grand Canyon in Arizona, Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina and Yellowstone in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

That shows the scope of the challenge, said Garder.

“There are a diversity of projects,” he said. “But these multimillion-dollar projects to rehabilitate potable and wastewater facilities just shows the very basic needs that have not been met to ensure continuing quality visitor experience and to ensure the kinds of accidents and breakdowns that threaten ecosystems and cultural resources.”

The list includes $40 million to replace a wastewater plant at the Grand Canyon, $30 million for water and wastewater in the Everglades, $29 million for water facilities in Yellowstone and $27 million for Glacier’s water infrastructure.

David MacDonald, the president of Friends of Acadia, a group that advocates and raises money for Acadia National Park, and a leader at the National Park Friends Alliance, a national network of similar organizations with relationships to other parks, said the LRF list in particular is “very consistent with the intent of the legislation, which is tackling this deferred maintenance backlog,” MacDonald said.

The list, only the second since Congress created the trust fund, focuses on the larger parks with the most maintenance needs, he said.

“They are geared toward a pretty small number of larger parks that receive heavy visitation and have large deferred maintenance portfolios,” MacDonald said.

In future years, the administration should spread more of the funding to smaller parks, MacDonald said.

The lists are subject to approval in a Congress controlled by the same party as the administration, and because of the wording of the Great American Outdoors Act are likely to remain mostly intact.

The lists show early returns for the Great American Outdoors Act, Garder said. Conservationists hailed the bipartisan law last year as a milestone for funding public lands projects.

“The LWCF list demonstrates the value of this bill and the many, many projects — including more than 30 in our national parks — that can and should be funded to protect these special places in perpetuity,” Garder said. “There are countless more properties at threat.”

Roads and bridges

The Biden administration had only been in office about four months when the lists were prepared, and many leadership posts — including a National Park Service director — are still unfilled, leaving non-political staff in the executive branch to compile the lists of requested projects.

Future years could see a shift as more political appointees gain influence over the process.

The administration has framed the $2.8 billion allocation as part of its effort to combat climate change, including the voluntary America the Beautiful program that seeks to conserve 30% of U.S. land and water by 2030.

“One of the best investments we can make is in stewarding the lands and waters that sustain us and the generations to come,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement Thursday.

“Today we are making critical investments that will create tens of thousands of jobs, safeguard the environment, and help ensure that national parks and public lands are ready to meet the challenges of climate change and increased visitation.”

Many items on the Biden administration’s initial lists, though, are geared toward basic infrastructure.

Significant funding would go toward road construction, reflecting the largest single source of maintenance needs in the system. Roads and bridges make up about half of the nearly $12 billion National Park Service maintenance backlog, Garder said.

The largest proposed grant would provide $129 million to rehabilitate portions of the Colonial Parkway, a 23-mile roadway that connects Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown, Va.

The administration would also provide nearly $60 million for Blue Ridge Parkway maintenance in Virginia and North Carolina and $25 million for roads in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee.

A major infrastructure bill and a surface transportation authorization could provide additional funding for road projects associated with national parks.

At least one item on the LWCF list is intended to help draw attention to racial injustice, another theme of Biden’s presidency.

The budget proposes $4.1 million for the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in eastern Colorado, the site of a bloody 1864 attack by U.S. forces on Cheyenne and Arapah people, most of whom were women, children or elderly, according to the Park Service.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.