National Park Traveler Logo


IG Report: National Park Service Can’t Effectively Manage Maintenance Backlog

ByKurt Repanshek

September 20th, 2023

The National Park Service can’t successfully manage its multi-billion-dollar maintenance backlog “due to inaccurate and unreliable data” that has made it impossible to accurately state the cost of the backlog, according to the Interior Department’s Inspector General, though the agency strongly disagrees.

“Even though its identified number of assets remained relatively constant, the NPS’ deferred maintenance cost estimate has continuously increased from $11.3 billion in FY 2016 to $20 billion in FY 2021. The NPS has cited multiple factors that contributed to this increase, including application of a blanket 35 percent markup to its FY 2021 deferred maintenance estimate, which increased its estimate by an additional $3.7 billion that year for a total of $23.7 billion,” states the report issued last week.

“We found, however, that there was not sufficient documentation demonstrating whether the amount of the markup was reasonable. We also found that the NPS’ broad application of the markup may lead to inaccurate estimates depending on whether work is completed by staff or contractors,” it added.

Furthermore, the review of how the Park Service has been tackling the backlog found delays in addressing “critical” health, life, and safety issues.

“This occurred because the NPS did not have an established process in place to monitor the ongoing status of critical HLS work orders,” the authors wrote.

Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, the agency’s chief spokesperson, said the Park Service appreciates “the IG’s review and recognition that facility investment needs outpace funding available.”

However, she further pointed to Park Service Director Chuck Sam’s written response to the IG that questioned the conclusions:

The report focuses on data management and administration; however, it fails to acknowledge improvements NPS has made to obtain more complete, timely, and consistent estimates of facility condition that can be used in identifying needs and targeting investments. Though the NPS had identified and acknowledged many of the issues and data management challenges discussed in the OIG’s draft report, and appreciates the OIG team’s efforts and professionalism, the lack of consideration for the implementation of planned improvements during the engagement period has largely resulted in a set of conclusions and recommendations that are no longer valid nor relevant in the context described within the report. 

Mike Murray, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, and Kristen Brengel, vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association, agreed with the Park Service that the IG report was flawed.

“I think it’s important to note that the OIG report reviewed past practices related to NPS management of the DM [deferred maintenance] situation (as it existed between FY2016-2021). It is not an accurate depiction of the current situation, as six of the report’s eight recommendations have already been resolved by the NPS,” said Murray. “I do think it makes sense that the NPS should develop additional guidance for estimating the cost of maintenance projects, particularly regarding the use of a standard mark-up in cost estimates. While the report considers this one of two ‘unresolved’ recommendations, the NPS is already in the process of addressing this.

“In general, I think the NPS has worked hard in recent years to improve its DM-related planning processes. These improvements have occurred, in part, in response to the opportunities offered by the Great American Outdoors Act to address the DM backlog,” he added. “But it’s also important to keep in mind that the report gives insufficient attention to the root cause of the DM backlog, which is the chronic lack of adequate NPS operating funds to provide for preventative and recurring maintenance and component renewal activities in parks. As long as this shortfall continues to occur in annual appropriations, the NPS will continue to struggle with a fluctuating DM backlog.”

At NPCA, Brengel pointed out that “expecting the Park Service staff to have full cost estimates for projects prior to the Great American Outdoors Act’s passage is not a reasonable expectation. The parks knew what was aging and in disrepair. Now that Congress made the investment in fixing parks, the agency updated its systems and it working on 370 important projects. The National Park Service staff is running a successful effort to repair roads, bridges, trails and historic sites.”

The Maintenance Albatross

The ever-growing maintenance backlog across the National Park System has been an albatross around the agency’s neck. The Park Service in years past has pointed out that the park system “has extensive preventive and recurring maintenance needs resulting from aging infrastructure and heavy use which often exceeds the capacity for which it was designed. Funding related to maintenance is insufficient to keep pace with needs, which means maintenance is delayed adding to the backlog and resulting in compounding costs.”

Back in 2018 writers and editors for the National Parks Traveler produced a long-running series of stories chronicling problems created by the backlog, which at the time was estimated to amount to nearly $12 million in needed repairs. That series found trails long closed to hikers, leak-prone water pipelines critical to human safety, bridges in dire need of repairs if not replacement, weary sewer systems that can’t handle demands, historic structures at risk of serious deterioration, and lodges that are unfit for habitation.

In 2020, Congress passed and President Trump signed into law the Great American Outdoors Act, which queued up $6.5 billion to be doled out in $1.3 billion annual payments for five years for the National Park Service to use in tackling backlogged maintenance work. That annual GAOA funding has been spread across the park system to address needed projects.

But two years later, in May 2022, the Park Service said the cost of deferred maintenance across the National Park System had reached $21.8 billion. That figure was contained in a press release about efforts to reduce the backlog. To do so, the agency said, it has “implemented a new and improved assessment process that provides a more complete and timely understanding of facility conditions and the cost to repair them.”

The agency claimed that the new system “is more consistent with modern-day industry standards, and it streamlines how the NPS evaluates and collects information providing a more complete understanding of deficiencies and repair needs nationwide.” 

The Inspector General does not agree with that statement. In its 66-page report the IG said the Park Service’s accounting problems did not just arise, but have been ongoing “for at least two decades,” or back to the Clinton administration. In some cases maintenance costs were underestimated, in others they were over-estimated, according to the IG’s findings.

“Without reliable deferred maintenance data and standardized policies and procedures, the NPS is unable to effectively use its resources, including the substantial influx of GAOA funding, to manage its deferred maintenance,” the report stated. “Further, unreliable deferred maintenance data can potentially affect external decisions ranging from policymaking to appropriations.”

While the Park Service, in response to a draft of the IG’s report, said it was embarking on a new approach for estimating deferred maintenance costs, the IG’s staff was not convinced that would solve the problems.

“It does not appear that this new methodology, on its own, addresses the ongoing risk that the assessments may not be updated as deferred maintenance work is completed. Therefore, we believe that the NPS still faces risks in managing overdue maintenance and repairs if it does not develop and implement a process to ensure that data within the [Facility Management Software System] are accurate and complete,” they noted in the final report.

According to that report, the problems with the estimates were created because the “NPS did not consistently identify, enter, and classify deferred maintenance work orders or verify their accuracy—which in some cases understated and in others overstated its deferred maintenance estimates. The NPS also increased the FY 2021 deferred maintenance estimate through a 35 percent markup without sufficient documentation demonstrating whether the amount of the markup was reasonable, increasing its deferred maintenance by $3.7 billion. These problems occurred because the NPS does not have policies or procedures that identify when to classify work orders as deferred maintenance; how to track, update, and monitor work orders; or how and when to apply the 35 percent markup.”

Part of the accounting problems stem from the Park Service’s relatively open-ended timeframe for defining deferred maintenance, the report noted. 

“At the 15 parks we reviewed, we identified approximately 26,000 open work orders with estimated costs of $371 million that were 3 years or older but that had not been classified as deferred maintenance,” the IG said. “When we expanded our analysis across all NPS parks, we identified a total of approximately 214,000 work orders that were 3 years or older that were not classified as deferred maintenance—which amounted to a total of $2.6 billion that was not included in the NPS’ deferred maintenance calculations.”

Without a diligent approach for tracking deferred maintenance across the system, the Park Service “cannot accurately account for the parks’ deferred maintenance needs.”

In responding to the IG report as it was heading to a final version, the Park Service said it had created a new system for tracking maintenance work orders during the first quarter of Fiscal 2023 and that that system had reduced errors by 87 percent from the third quarter of FY22 to the first quarter of FY23.