National Parks need a little love

Roads and trails and buildings in our national parks are deteriorating, and adequate funding to fix that problem remains elusive.

With so many competing demands for federal dollars, the National Parks Service is often a lower priority, especially for repair projects. The result is that despite user fees the backlog of projects at national parks nationwide is $11.49 billion, according to the agency.

The maintenance backlog for eight federal parks in Washington alone is $507.2 million – a staggering sum in an era when Congress is more willing to cut spending than to find ways to invest in infrastructure. This includes work on roads that bring hikers and tourists into the parks.

This problem of crumbling roads, culverts, lodges and eroded trails is not new.

Deferred maintenance work in the park system is chronic and longstanding. It doesn’t take much searching to find news headlines since the early 1990s that referred to our parks system as being “loved to death.” That’s another way of saying that with a growing population the national parks — which encompass some of our nation’s most spectacular places — get so many visitors that they are being worn out.

A recent report by The Olympian and The News Tribune noted that about half of the backlog in Washington parks is for road work. At Mount Rainier National Park, needed road work is an even larger share, or $222 million of the $298 million in deferred maintenance.

Managers at Mount Rainier have been able to get a concessionaire, Rainier Guest Services, to take on about $2 million of improvements through a new multiyear contract executed in 2014. That is a good and creative, but very small, step toward accomplishing some of the $32.9 million in upkeep needed on buildings. Trails need another $10.2 million of work.

The park secures just $6 million to $8 million a year for maintenance upgrades, which is about $4 million to $5 million less than needed to begin catching up.

The first phase of a $32 million project is continuing this year to rehabilitate a 17-mile stretch of road between Paradise and the Nisqually entrance to the park. Work to stabilize the Paradise Inn against earthquakes may not begin until 2017, and that cost ultimately may be around $15 million.

The situation isn’t a lot better in places such as Olympic National Park, which needs $133 million in repairs, or Lake Roosevelt, which needs $28.7 million, or Fort Vancouver at $21.4 million.

Our federal parks system is in a funding hole and will need years to catch up with repairs. It will take a strong national commitment to pay for parks, followed by a budget that fulfills it.

Parks system managers have asked for $3 billion in funding in the 2016 federal budget, and $242.8 million of it is for the backlog of repair projects. That is in addition to $300 million a year for three years for maintenance.

Fee increases may be part of the answer, but parks are a national treasure that deserve support from everyone. They also should be accessible to everyone, and raising user fees can limit access to those most able to pay. With the national parks centennial coming in 2016, this is a good time to remind Congress it should affirm its commitment to parks by providing money to maintain what we have.