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President Trump Has Signed The Great American Outdoors Act: Now What? 

By Kurt Repanshek – August 5th, 2020 4:22pm

Passage of the Great American Outdoors Act has been hailed as one of the greatest conservation measures to come out of Congress in decades, as it will send $6.5 billion to the National Park Service to battle deferred maintenance in the National Park System and fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

But now what? How will $1.3 billion a year over the next five years be spent in the parks, and which parks will get a boost in tackling their maintenance issues?

While the Park Service’s Washington, D.C., office said the Trump administration has 90 days to submit its priority list, after which each president is expected to include a list in their annual budget proposals, it’s not as simple as having the money in hand and a list of projects that could use it.

Water spraying from broken water pipeline at Grand Canyon National Park
The weary and break-prone Transcanyon Pipeline at Grand Canyon National Park has been a poster child for the Park Service’s maintenance backlog/NPS file

Look out across the 419 units of the National Park System and the challenges with prioritizing become obvious. As Traveler pointed out last month, the backlog has been growing at hundreds of millions of dollars per year in recent years ($313 million during Fiscal 2018), annual sums that will lessen the impact of the additional $1.3 billion expected to be made available annually through this funding.

Indeed, nearly $700 million was spent during Fiscal 2018 on maintenance projects, yet the backlog is still about $12 billion.  (What the current backlog figure is isn’t being released by the Park Service, which now considers the annual tally as unhelpful. “Based on our experience, DM is a more valuable measurement as a trend – rather than a point in time. NPS is currently implementing changes to condition assessment and project scoping processes to reduce reporting burden on field staff, ensure effective prioritization of needs, and focus efforts on project planning and execution.”)

Yosemite National Park alone had roughly $645 million in backlogged maintenance at the end of FY18, Yellowstone National Park’s tally was $585.5 million, and the National Mall and Memorial Parks had nearly $655 million. Those three units alone could use the first $1.3 billion installment.

Then, too, the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Tennessee had $1.7 million in FY18 deferred maintenance, of which more than $461,000 was tied to facilities at the park. Horseshoe Bend National Military Park in Alabama was looking at more than $4.5 million in deferred maintenance, the bulk — $3.4 million — tied to road needs. Pinnacles National Park in California reported $10.6 million, of which nearly $6 million was linked to road needs and roughly $1.6 million associated with water systems.

While road needs might amount to roughly half the entire backlog, there also are overwhelmed sewage systems, historic structures in need of repairs, campgrounds and trails that need upkeep, and employee housing that needs serious attention.

Lewis River Bridge surrounded my mist.
Yellowstone National Park’s request to replace the deteriorating Lewis River Bridge has been approved. But the money has yet to be provided/NPS file

Choosing where to spend the money might not be as easy as it might seem. Should the money go to the parks that draw the most visitors? Should they go to the parks with the most serious maintenance issues? Should Park Service employees be better taken care of?

“We will not speculate on which projects will be on the list to be funded by this source specifically,” said Park Service spokesperson Alexandra Picavet on Wednesday.

“Deferred maintenance and investment needs will be addressed at various facilities including, campgrounds, picnic areas, roads, trails, and other critical infrastructure,” she added in an email. “GAOA will ensure crucial investments are made in our nation’s most meaningful landscapes to enable their preservation, accessibility, and enjoyment for this and future generations. Any investment of this magnitude will have an impact felt nationwide.”

At Resources For the Future, a nonprofit nonpartisan organization that seeks “to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement,” economist Margaret Walls said addressing the biggest ticket items might not provide the biggest benefit to park visitors.

“When we fix something at the Grand Canyon or Zion, maybe relatively more of the benefits go to overseas visitors or wealthier people, but when we fix things at a park that services an urban area, we benefit a more diverse population,” she said Wednesday.

The Park Service does have an extensive list of maintenance needs. Some are more obvious than others:

  • Grand Canyon National Park needs roughly $100 million to replace its Transcanyon Pipeline, which funnels water from a spring on the North Rim to the bottom of the canyon, across the Colorado River, and then up to the South Rim. The system also provides water to the North Rim, and in late July, in what has become a frustratingly repetitive exercise, the park initiated “water conservation measures on the North Rim due to a water pump failure within the Transcanyon Pipeline system at Roaring Springs. … The estimated timeline for repair and replacement is unknown and water conservation measures will remain in effect for the North Rim until further notice.”
  • Wind Cave National Park’s cave tours have been in hiatus, indefinitely, due to the need for “major elevator repairs.”
  • The Federal Highway Administration says that roughly 200 miles of the 469-mile-long Blue Ridge Parkway need to be reconstructed at an estimated cost of $220 million; another 115 miles are in “fair” condition but could use milling and repaving. There also is at least one bridge on the Parkway that needs to be replaced, at an estimated cost of $23 million. Then there’s the historic and cozy 24-room Bluffs Lodge, which has been out of commission since its last concessionaire shuttered the place back in 2010. Since then, a dangerous mold has inundated the facility that you can find at milepost 241 on the parkway.
  • In the past year or so more and more parks have cited maintenance backlog needs in instituting higher entrance fees. Among those parks have been Everglades National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Capulin Volcano National Monument, Pinnacles National Park, and Indiana Dunes National Park.

Of the roughly $12 billion backlog, about $6.15 billion is tied to roads, bridges, parking lots, and tunnels. (While it’s not “deferred” maintenance just yet, in Yellowstone the overpass that funnels southbound traffic to the Old Faithful complex was shut down last month due to structural problems. Exactly what the problems are and how much it will cost to address remain to be seen.)

At least one superintendent is curious to see how the money will be distributed.

“Indications suggest the Great American Outdoors Act dollars are going to go to big things, which will require creativity in bundling small projects together,” they said. “Or else, the small and maybe even mid-size parks may not realize that many gains.”

At the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, Chair Phil Francis said projects that have already negotiated many of the requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act could have a leg up over other projects.

Back in 2009, when President Obama pressed Congress for an $800 billion stimulus package, those looking to spend on park projects looked for those that were “shovel ready.” It was a good approach, but not entirely executed properly, according to Francis.

“A lot of people claimed that projects were shovel ready,” he noted, “but when it was time to test that it was found out that some were not shovel ready.”

There are projects across the park system that “are at various stages of readiness,” said Picavet, though until President Trump provides his priority list it won’t be known whether any on that list are ready to go.

Beyond the paperwork, there’s the question of whether smaller units of the park system have the capability in terms of planners, managers, and workers to handle a windfall for deferred maintenance projects.

At the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the backlog at the end of Fiscal 2019 totaled nearly $700 million, Francis, who ended his career as the parkway’s superintendent, said he was told that the park “needs about twice as many people working in maintenance as they do.”

“And that explains why the backlog exists,” he said. “I think the same kind of problem exists in many parks. It’s all varying degrees. Yellowstone and Yosemite sometimes are doing better than other parks.”

Also contributing to the problem, in Francis’s opinion, is that staffing at the Park Service’s regional offices has declined in recent years, and so parks that relied on those offices for help in planning big projects could be at a disadvantage.

“It’s my understanding that the size of the regional offices has greatly declined. In fact, they may be down by 50 percent or more,” he said. “That has impacts in a variety of ways. The smaller parks that don’t have the professional staff on board were very reliant on those regional offices” for IT, HR, and maintenance support.

“As people have become more responsible for a much broader scale of things, it’s been pretty hard I think for those regional offices to be effective. And it takes more time to do the design work and go through the planning because there are less people involved,” said Francis.

What projects will make the first round of spending? Congress should have President Trump’s priority list by Nov. 2, which is 90 days from the day he signed the Great American Outdoors Act into law.

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