Great American Outdoors Act: Deferred Maintenance Implementation Considerations and Recommendations
The Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) was an extraordinary accomplishment for repairing and conserving our national parks. It is critical that implementation of the law is successful to ensure wise, efficient, transparent use of federal dollars; to meet congressional intent; and to demonstrate the level of success that could spur reauthorization of the deferred maintenance provisions of this law.
Many aspects of the National Park Service’s (NPS) implementation are impressive, and agency personnel have clearly been taking many steps to ensure successful execution. Unfortunately, however, the effort has been led by political appointees. As a result, there has been a lack of transparency in the project selection process and a lack of stakeholder engagement that has frustrated public interest groups and lawmakers. It is critical that leadership at the Department of the Interior (DOI) and NPS provide the necessary oversight to ensure improved transparency and project equity and that potential pitfalls in implementation are avoided. Our recommendations for DOI and NPS consideration are:
Evaluate the role of the task force: Evaluate the composition, purpose and function of the DOI task force overseeing GAOA implementation. Ensure it effectively considers the views and expertise of superintendents and other field staff, as well as WASO career staff. Currently the task force has minimal career staff presence. Rather than a top-down process driven by political leaders with less expertise, consider an approach driven more by career staff with expertise, in consultation with leadership to ensure oversight and consistency with administration goals.
Ensure transparency to Congress and the public: Engage and update partners regularly and establish an advisory panel consisting of stakeholders including, but not limited to, those representing tribes, park gateway communities, conservation, historic preservation, recreation, and the outdoor industry. Consider the approach of the U.S. Forest Service of posting projects online for public review with opportunity for comments. Both formally and informally, regularly update relevant members of Congress—including bill leads, members of authorizing and appropriations committees, and members with parks in their districts. This can help inform equitable and strategic project development and develop buy-in that ensures strategic execution and support for reauthorization.
Critically examine project prioritization guidance for FY22 and future fiscal years:
Ensure equity in parks that benefit from DM funds: Current guidance on project prioritization includes an emphasis on the most-visited parks with the highest deferred maintenance (DM) needs, some of which will receive funds for multiple projects in FY21. While these are critical, Congress also intended that the law fund small, medium and large projects and parks of differing sizes with varied visitation levels. Relying on alternative funding sources such as line-item construction may introduce a level of vulnerability given uncertainties in the appropriations process, while also failing to show members of Congress the ubiquitous success that dedicated funding legislation can ensure.
Ensure projects are coded as ‘high” or “highest” priority: The intent of Congress was to ensure that the projects NPS determines to be most pressing are funded by the law. Projects that fail to meet this bar diminish the intent of the law and could lead to a less favorable congressional response that could threaten potential reauthorization.
Prioritize natural, cultural, and historical resource protection and build a systematic climate-change framework into project consideration and design: The Biden administration’s prioritization of climate is an opportunity to incorporate it into project prioritization. Projects should also evaluate the restoration and protection of natural, cultural, and historical resources as primary considerations. NPS currently considers climate change in evaluating projects, and several FY ‘21 projects address erosion and other factors related to climate change. However, it is unclear if climate considerations are formally or systematically incorporated into facilities management. Considerations should include use of resilient materials while considering historic aesthetic implications, evaluating if facilities should be relocated or abandoned and eventually removed, and ensuring energy efficiency when replacing utility systems, buildings and other relevant assets. Internal and public facing materials, including those for congressional review, should reflect approaches to climate change including challenges and best practices.
Ensure long-term planning for projects that may take years: Criteria have included projects that are ready for the immediate obligation of funds. While in the first year of funding this may be appropriate, NPS must ensure that projects that take years to plan are also included. The law ensured that while funds would be deposited for five years, funds could accrue interest and await obligation for out-years for projects that require extensive planning and/or compliance.
Ensure timely training opportunities for superintendents to get projects in the queue, particularly lesser- resourced parks. Our understanding is that larger parks and/or superintendents and facilities managers who have significant experience and/or access to resources have been able to more easily navigate the process of submitting projects for consideration. However, many superintendents do not have this level of expertise or access. The Maintenance Action Teams (MATs), online learning portals, and access to shared resources such as regional office expertise and the Denver Service Center are among the opportunities to explore to ensure ubiquitous access to training and other resources.
Engage partners systematically: A defined, intentional and inclusive process is needed to engage partners early and often. MATS teams offer opportunities to work with partners to leverage both financial and in-kind support, particularly for smaller projects. Partner funding and staffing capacity, from project management to implementation, should be considered. Partners, including the Public Lands Alliance, friends groups, and the National Park Foundation should be engaged in a collaborative, communicative process to advance projects to the Internal Review Board for consideration. Partners should be engaged early in the process prior to project selection, and longer multi-year timelines should be considered to allow partners to raise the funds necessary to help with projects in the later years of GAOA funding.
Carefully examine leveraging tools for sustainable life-cycle asset management: We are pleased to see the innovation of several concepts that NPS is exploring to leverage additional resources, such as maximizing grant programs, leveraging park partnerships and expanding historic leasing opportunities. We urge careful consideration of some of these concepts, however. Transferring asset ownership to local corporate partners may be appropriate in some instances, such as where utility costs can be transferred, but nongovernment ownership of NPS assets is a concept that requires careful consideration to avoid privatization. Disposal of lower priority assets is logical, but care should be taken to avoid transfer of assets of historic value or, at a minimum, to assess these assets systematically to ensure compliance with historic resource protection laws.
Creating concessioner opportunities may be appropriate and effective in certain circumstances, but outsourcing to concessioners should be approached carefully as shifting NPS operations to concessioners can raise privatization issues such as increasing costs for visitors and/or changing the character of the visiting experience. Finally, evaluating entrance and amenity fees should be done carefully. Our parks need to remain affordable for all visitors including those of lesser means. For campgrounds, for example, expanded amenities that involve higher fees may be more appropriate at nearby private campgrounds. If these improvements are undertaken in NPS campgrounds, visitors should have options for more modestly priced, more primitive opportunities.
Identify opportunities to improve and expand accessibility beyond ADA compliance. Upgrading trails, visitor centers and other facilities are opportunities to do more than meet compliance requirements. They are opportunities to build a 21st Century National Park System with parks accessible to all. Arches National Park offers examples of best practices ensuring greater access for those with varying disabilities.
Identify opportunities to improve parks’ cultural relevance including multilingual signage and more inclusive and interpretive displays that are compelling to a diversity of park visitors.
For more information, contact:
Phil Francis, Chair, The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
John Garder, Senior Director of Budget and Appropriations