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Park Service anniversary finds government working to implement new funding

The government is working to implement new legislation giving the National Park Service’s infrastructure a well-needed facelift as the NPS, one of the most popular federal agencies, celebrates its 104th anniversary on Tuesday.

The recently passed Great American Outdoors Act is intended to tackle the roughly $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog, made up of non-functioning water systems, eroded trails, unpaved roads and even collapsed buildings.

However, parks advocates express fears that the process could quickly get political and that after the five-year influx of cash is gone, parts of the nation’s parks could return to disrepair.

The act, which President Trump signed into law earlier this month, sets aside as much as $1.9 billion annually over the next five years for parks maintenance, starting in 2021. It’s the latest in a long history of programs to update, clean up and otherwise improve the more than 85 million acres of national park land.

After its passage, the Interior Department created a task force to identify a list of projects to prioritize, recruit and hire people to carry out the repairs and create a strategy to try to maximize the impact of the funding.

The group is led by Margaret Everson, the new head of the NPS, with other members including Deputy Interior Secretary Kate MacGregor and officials charged with overseeing policy development and budget; land and minerals management; fish, wildlife and parks; Indian affairs and the agency’s solicitor.

Interior spokesperson Conner Swanson told The Hill in an email that it’s up to the task force to determine the criteria for which projects are prioritized. The standards haven’t yet been set, according to the department.

In a statement announcing the group this month, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt called the law’s passage “historic.”

“I’ve established a task force to maximize the impact of the Great American Outdoors Act and determine priority funding needs, so we can expeditiously serve the American public in rebuilding their national parks, American Indian schools and public lands,” he said.

The bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act also provides full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which helps secure land for parks and trails and works to protect sensitive forest and endangered species habitat.

The legislation has received praise from many environmental groups.

“Securing funding for the LWCF and to restore our parks means that we can not only begin to address the woeful state of many of our parks and public lands, but also allow us to expand investments in state and local park projects in communities that have for so long been denied access to nature and the outdoors,” read a July statement from Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune after the bill passed the House.

Phil Francis, the chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which also supported the legislation, told The Hill he is hoping for transparency and fairness in the way the funds are administered.

“I hope that the determination of which projects get funded is based upon need and not politics,” Francis said.

Francis, who is also the former superintendent of NPS’s Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, specified that he hopes projects aren’t chosen based on what congressional districts they’re in or due to an “agenda” to prioritize recreational access over other services provided by NPS.

He also expressed concern that Everson is the only Park Service employee on the task force.

Francis told The Hill that he has seen firsthand what can happen when NPS property isn’t maintained.

“We had some old structures, some old barns in Cades Cove … that just eventually fell down to the ground,” he said.

He also brought up safety issues related to eroded trails.

“When you have a lot of water damage, that needs to be fixed,” Francis said. “In areas that get a lot of rainfall, if you have a lot of horseback use, those trails can become so deep they become as deep as the horse is tall and it’s not safe.”

Tim Harvey, who formerly led NPS’s Park Facility Management Division, said that funding is also needed to prevent facilities from falling into disrepair in the first place.

“There’s also an issue with a lack of operational money. So you build a new building, well you’ve got to pay for the heating, the cooling, the lighting, the cleaning, staffing … there’s maintenance that needs to occur cleaning gutters, doing painting, cleaning carpets,” Harvey said.

“That’s what causes this accumulation of deferred maintenance is that underfunding of park operations,” he said, adding that after the bill’s five years are up, Congress should look for ways to maintain the facilities the funding has restored.

Although the first national park, Yellowstone, was founded in 1872, the NPS wasn’t formally created until Aug. 25, 1916, when then-President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act.

Wilson’s move put the new agency in charge of 35 national parks, while today, there are more than 400 areas under NPS jurisdiction.

NPS has been expanded multiple times in its history, including in 1933 when an executive order from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt transferred 56 national monuments and military sites to the agency. It was also shifted more toward recreation in 1970 with the General Authorities Act.

During its century-long history, the NPS has been plagued with maintenance issues and seen multiple attempted fixes.

In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of the New Deal, worked to improve both national and state parks. Corps members worked on construction, repair and maintenance of trails, bridges, roads, water systems, dams and more.

Mission 66 of the 1950s and ’60s sought to improve infrastructure and build visitor centers to better the experience for people going to the parks.

And in the 1980s, a program known as the Park Restoration and Improvement Program was intended to upgrade facilities nationwide.

“It seems like just about every 20 years this happens,” said Harvey, who had a 40-year career with NPS.

He added, however, that the up to $9.5 billion that will be provided under the Great American Outdoors Act is significant.

“This amount of funding is just unprecedented and I believe we’ve got great people that are dedicated in the National Park Service to make wise decisions … I just hope they have the license to do so,” Harvey said.