On a damp, cool morning at the Chimneys Picnic Area in the Smokies, cars bump along the crumbling pavement next to a rushing stream. Visitors are eager to gaze at the riot of violets and yellow trillium that lines the Cove Hardwood Trail. In fact, the trail is so popular that the parking lot is falling apart — and Great Smoky Mountains National Park lacks the money to fix it.
Maintenance like this has been put off for decades in all of America's national parks. Now some roads, historic buildings and water systems, even the pipeline to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, are reaching a crisis.
A spending bill passed by Congress in March will provide more than $100 million to help, but the total Park Service backlog is estimated at $11.6 billion. Congress is considering several strategies to directly fund these projects. But advocates for national parks criticize a bill promoted by the Trump Administration for providing less certainty and pairing it with an incentive to increase energy production on federal lands.
A Potentially 'Catastrophic' Backlog
As America's most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains needs $215 million to cover overdue repairs, says Dana Soehn, a communications manager for the park. That's 10 times the park's total annual budget.
“If you're driving through here and not used to these narrow roadways, and all of a sudden you come upon an area that you no longer have pavement, you can quickly find yourself in a ditch,” Soehn says.
Unsafe roads must be closed. The same is true for campgrounds without water or sewage treatment. Look Rock Campground, which can host 5,600 families a year, was closed five years ago when its water system failed. Last month Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander visited to announce that $2 million from the recent spending bill will go toward reopening it. Three-quarters of the Smokies' backlog is related to its 384 miles of roads, Soehn says.
A few years ago, a woman in a motorized wheelchair hit a pothole in the paved Laurel Falls Trail and ended up in a ravine with serious injuries. Soehn says that trail needs a $3 million overhaul to handle the 4,000 people that sometimes use it in a single day.
“Because of the nature of this backlog accumulating over a long period of time, and getting worse every year as we constantly underfund the operations of the park, the effects down the line appear gradual at first but then could be catastrophic,” says Don Barger, southeast regional director for the National Park Conservation Association. (The national organization was founded a few years after the National Park system “around the issue of maintenance, because they were underfunded from the start,” Barger says.)
During their visit in May, Zinke and Alexander touted legislation that could help with the backlog.
Several bipartisan bills propose using part of the money paid by energy companies that mine federal land. One bill, which Alexander co-sponored and the National Parks Conservation Association endorses, would use revenue that energy companies pay the federal government to mine and drill on federal land.
The amounts are spelled out in the bill, starting with $50 million during each of the first three years and increasing gradually to $500 million a year from 2027 through 2047.
The second bill, authored by Alexander at Zinke's request, relies on the same funding source, but the national parks maintenance backlog would receive money only if more profit is made from these federal mining leases than expected. And the amount would likely fluctuate with oil and gas prices.
Even if there is extra revenue beyond what's expected, only half of it would go to national parks. Alexander estimated his bill would net the parks $7 billion over a decade. But it's unclear how the federal Office of Management and Budget arrived at that number, since the whole plan is based on profits exceeding current estimates.
Barger says there is so much uncertainty in this approach that it would be hard to accomplish multi-year maintenance projects. “If mineral revenues come in at the projected level, the national parks get nothing,” he says.
The bill also appears to offer an incentive to boost mineral extraction on land owned by taxpayers, Barger notes, by linking national park funding to an increase in mining. The National Parks Conservation Association provided comments to the U.S. Department of the Interior, stating the group “needs assurances that the funding source in this bill does not have to rely on the Secretary of the Interior’s proposal to expand drilling into sensitive areas, as stated in the Administration’s infrastructure proposal.”
But Alexander notes that there is a precedent for using energy revenues to support parks. For decades, they have been used for a land and conservation fund that feeds state and federal parks. (Under the new proposals, this wouldn't change; Park Service backlog money would be diverted from revenues that currently flow to the general treasury.)
“That principle of using an environmental burden and turning it into an environmental benefit is well-established, so I think most conservationists know very well that it's sound policy,” Alexander says. “If we're going to get money every year from appropriate exploration on federal lands — not national parks, but all our federal lands — let's use some of that to make our national parks better.”
Barger expressed gratitude that Alexander is willing to help build consensus around any version of the bills that will both help with the backlog and pass Congress. Alexander said the House of Representatives held hearings on the bill in April and the Senate was scheduled to do so this month.
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