Commentary: Preserving ‘America’s Best Idea’

Commentary: Preserving ‘America’s Best Idea’

As a National Parks enthusiast, I felt very privileged to be in Acadia National Park on Aug. 25, 2016 when the National Park Service (NPS) celebrated its centennial. I got my favorite National Park souvenir there; a picture of the iconic “Bubbles at Jordan Pond,” signed by the entire Maine Congressional delegation. They were there to celebrate that event, and it was inspiring to hear their unanimous, bipartisan, and emotional support for Acadia and the entire National Park system. It made me hope that my Virginia Congressional delegation was as unambiguously supportive of the many National Park sites we are blessed to have just minutes, or a few hours, from our doorsteps in Fairfax County.

NPS spent the past 100 years protecting many of America’s most scenic landscapes, its diverse but often threatened wildlife, and key elements of our cultural history. As we celebrate 100 years of “America’s Best Idea,” and look forward to further additions to the system, we must not lose track of the critical work of properly caring for and maintaining the gems already in the system.

Americans and visitors to the U.S. are visiting the parks in record numbers. However, in the face of this great show of support, the NPS is facing a serious challenge: a $12 billion backlog of necessary infrastructure repairs. These range from unmaintained trails, to crumbling roads, to visitor centers built over 50 years ago in desperate need of updating. Some things can be replaced later at increased expense if left beyond repair, but many others, like historical buildings cannot. I’ve stood in line to use a Porta Potty next to a shuttered bathroom, whose continued use would leak raw sewage into the environment from old or damaged pipes. This decaying infrastructure jeopardizes both the future of these treasured pieces of America’s heritage, and the local economies that they significantly support.

IN VIRGINIA, National Parks are not just places that protect important pieces of our environment and heritage, they are also major economic engines. According to NPS estimates, visitors to Virginia Parks in 2015 had direct spending of $982.9 million in local gateway regions. This supported over 15,000 jobs, and added an estimated $1.3 billion in secondary economic output to the Virginia economy. Virginia Parks face a staggering $816 million in needed repairs. Rangers and other park staff do the best they can, but if left unfunded, these issues will negatively, and in some cases permanently, affect the condition of these treasured resources and the visitor experience, ultimately leading to fewer visitors to the park. If the backlog continues, the future of these incredible assets, and the economic vitality of the businesses and gateway communities they support, remains threatened.

Thankfully, bipartisan legislation recently introduced by Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Rob Portman (R-OHIO) would provide the NPS more resources to begin to make a dent in the backlog. The National Park Service Legacy Act (NPSLA) would phase in the allocation of up to $500 million annually until 2047 from existing government revenues from oil and natural gas royalties. This bill, if enacted, would help put our National Parks on the right track. By investing in our parks, we will not only start to tackle this backlog, but make our parks more resilient, and prepared to continue welcoming visitors eager to explore our nation’s most meaningful and special places.

Congress created the Park Service a century ago to protect America’s treasured natural, historical, and cultural sites, and ensure that Americans can enjoy them. There is no better way for Congress to help our parks as they begin their second century, than to support the maintenance funding needed to keep them the world class assets that they are. We need to address the backlog, and keep a new backlog from developing.

Whether you love the parks for what they contain and tell of our country and its values, or are concerned more with providing jobs and economic vitality to our state and country, the NPSLA, and the allocation of adequate funds in the normal budget process, is, if not “America’s Best Budget/Funding Idea,” at least an awfully good idea that we should all support.