A bill mandating about $700 million a year toward national park maintenance got backing from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and a line of Congress members on Wednesday.
“If you’re gaining wealth through energy on public lands, that wealth, some of it, goes back to preserving, protecting and leading to our maintenance of those public lands,” Zinke said at a press conference in Washington, D.C. “That’s a fair and noble proposition.”
Bill author Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, said the unfinished repairs were four times the amount of the National Park Service annual budget. His bill would make money for those repairs mandatory, instead of dependent on annual congressional appropriations. The bill has bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress.
The National Park Restoration Act would take half the revenue from federal land energy leases above the dollars already allocated for things like the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That fund is capped at $18 billion over its 10-year existence. The money can’t be used for buying land.
Instead, it would go toward the estimated $11.6 billion in backlogged maintenance on the nation’s 417 national parks. About half that amount stems from road decay.
“This is unprecedented,” Zinke said. “It’s probably the greatest (or) one of the greatest investments in the history of this country in public lands.”
The last major infrastructure investment in the National Park Service was the Mission 66 initiative, which committed $1 billion in spending on national parks over 10 years, starting in 1956. That works out to about $9.2 billion in today’s dollars.
The effort added 78 new parks or park additions, including Canyonlands National Park. Construction efforts included 584 restrooms, 100 visitor centers, 1,239 employee housing units and 221 administrative buildings. Among the specific projects were the visitor center atop Glacier National Park’s Logan Pass, the remaining two-thirds of the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway and the completion of St. Louis’ Gateway Arch.
Zinke said the new money would come from all kinds of energy revenue from federal lands, and singled out the impact of solar and wind projects as an example of the trade-offs involved.
“Every source of energy has a consequence on federal lands,” Zinke said. “Wind certainly chops up birds. Solar removes habitat. When you put large solar fields on federal land, that means that land is not available for hunting or recreation, and it’s tough on habitat. Oil and gas and carbon has its consequences.”
A recent list of Bureau of Land Management solar projects show about 57,000 acres of solar energy farms have been built or approved for development. Oil and gas leases on BLM land totaled 27 million acres in 2017, with 12.7 million acres in active production, according to figures compiled by the Wilderness Society.
Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines is a co-sponsor of the bill. On Wednesday he released several supportive comments from Montanans backing the effort.
“This bill may enable the mobilization of youth and veterans serving in conservation corps programs across the country to improve trails, campgrounds and natural resources that thrill the over 4 million visitors to parks like Yellowstone,” said Jono McKinney, chief executive officer of the Montana Conservation Corps.
“All of us in the tourism industry rely on our National Parks to serve as a focus to bring tourists to Montana from all over the world,” added Homer Staves, owner of Whitefish Montana KOA and president of the Campground Owners Association of Montana. “Often I’m ashamed when our customers ask about the condition of the facilities in Glacier National Park. We have ignored proper repair and maintenance of these irreplaceable places for too long.”