Statement for the Record
Michael B. Murray
Chair of the Executive Council
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks
Subcommittee on National Parks
Committee on Energy & Natural Resources
Hearing to review the implementation of the Great American Outdoors Act
February 9, 2022
Chairman Manchin, Ranking Member Barrasso, and members of the Subcommittee, I am Michael B. (Mike) Murray, Chair of the Executive Council Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition). The Coalition is a non-profit organization composed of more than 2,100 retired, former and current employees of the National Park Service who collectively have over 40,000 years of experience managing and protecting our national parks. The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System.
I am pleased to provide the views of the Coalition on the implementation of the Great American Outdoors Act through the National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Restoration Fund (LRF). We share the Subcommittee’s interest in conserving America’s greatest treasures, our national parks; and applaud Congress for passing this monumental bi-partisan legislation. The LRF provides the National Park Service with substantial funding, up to $6.65 billion over the next 5 years, to address and reduce the agency’s $12+ billion deferred maintenance backlog. The backlog threatens both the preservation of natural and cultural resources in parks and the quality of the experiences enjoyed by millions of park visitors to our National Park System each year. The additional funding provided through the LRF will result in extraordinary improvements to park infrastructure, utilities, visitor services (for example: visitor centers) and other facilities that are critical to both resource protection as well as visitor enjoyment.
First, we commend the National Park Service for its well-organized and effective implementation of the LRF program in FY 2021 and FY 2022. The Service developed sound project prioritization criteria and have implemented a spending strategy that would ensure large, high-priority infrastructure projects would be addressed first. It has truly been incredible to read through the lists of park projects that have been assigned LRF funding during its first two years of implementation.
Moving forward with the remaining three years of the program, we encourage both the Subcommittee and the National Park Service to consider the following things:
- From our many years of working for the agency, we know all too well that only the larger parks have professional project management staff, such as architects, engineers, and environmental compliance personnel. Because of this, it makes sense that many of the first- and second-year projects have been focused in the larger national parks where adequate project management staff likely exists and where parks have the capability to have “shovel ready” projects ready or nearly ready to go.
However, moving forward it will be important for the National Park Service to create additional project management teams, such as in central offices, to provide the support needed for many other parks to benefit from the LRF program as well. Adequate staffing for design, engineering, compliance, contracting, and project management are critical to success. It takes time to hire new staff and even more time to do the planning and contracting required to complete high-priority projects efficiently. Existing hiring authorities clearly limit the agency’s ability to bring on additional professional staff in a timely manner, particularly when such staffing is funded by project funding.
We suggest the National Park Service may need legislation to create a special hiring authority tied to the LRF program that would enable the agency to hire the professional staff needed to efficiently plan, manage, and implement deferred maintenance projects for the vast majority of parks that do not have such project management capability. In principle, this would be very similar to the special hiring authority granted to the Department of Energy in Section 301 of Title III, Division J, of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, P.L. 117–58.
- While the special hiring authority described above would be very beneficial, we are also very supportive of the National Park Service’s use of Maintenance Action Teams (MATs) to help small and medium-sized park units take advantage of LRF funding. At many parks without project management staff, the MAT approach is the most practical way for the agency to implement multiple deferred maintenance projects at multiple parks across a wide geographic area. Projects suitable for implementation by these teams will inherently be relatively smaller projects in terms of dollar value. We encourage the agency to continue supporting these teams and expand their usage, as appropriate, in the remaining years of the LRF program.
- Deferred maintenance of park housing units is a growing problem across the National Park Service. Of the Service’s 4,669 total housing units, there are 868 units in poor or obsolete condition. We are glad to see the agency assign LRF funds to several significant park housing projects in the FY 2021 and FY 2022 project lists; and we strongly encourage the agency to continue to use this funding to address employee housing needs. The inadequate supply and quality of employee housing has become an acute problem at a number of parks in recent years. For example, in parks located near small gateway communities or near resort areas with limited or unaffordable private-sector housing, the availability of park housing is often a key limiting factor in the number of seasonal employees a park can hire, which has a direct impact on the level of visitor services a park can provide. With park visitation increasing dramatically across the country, more park rangers and support staff are already urgently needed. Similarly, adequate park housing is needed to support the recruitment and retention of those employees. We encourage the National Park Service to continue to assign LRF funding to improve the condition and supply of park housing across the system.
In addition to creating the Legacy Restoration Fund, the Great American Outdoors Act also authorizes permanent funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually to improve recreational opportunities on public lands, protect watersheds and wildlife, and preserve ecosystem benefits for local communities. This funding presents a tremendous opportunity for federal agencies such as the National Park Service to address their respective land acquisition priorities. It also ensures continued federal support for various state and local grant programs, such as the American Battlefield Protection Program Battlefield Land Acquisition Grants and the State and Local Assistance Programs administered by the National Park Service.
A challenge affecting all Department of the Interior agencies’ ability to respond to land acquisition opportunities in a timely manner relates to the Department of the Interior’s Appraisal and Evaluation Services Office (AVSO). As the only office within the Department with delegated authority from the Secretary to conduct appraisals to determine fair market value, appraisals often require an extended length of time, which ends up being a significant bottleneck in the acquisition process. We understand that the National Park Service Lands Resources Program is working with the AVSO to discuss streamlining the process. Now that the Fund is permanently authorized, we strongly encourage both the Department and the Park Service to find a mutually agreeable solution that would enable timely completion of appraisals. Otherwise, the Service will be unable to respond in a timely manner when presented with important land acquisition opportunities.
In closing, we appreciate the opportunity to submit this statement on the Great American Outdoors Act and the Legacy Restoration Fund. We are grateful for the Subcommittee’s support of the National Park System.