Take care of existing national parks before acquiring more land

By Matthew Anderson

by Matthew Anderson of the Sutherland Institute
by Matthew Anderson of the Sutherland Institute

This August the National Park Service will celebrate its 100-year anniversary. Americans visiting our parks this year have been greeted with birthday cake, free admission, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and commemorative coins. While these celebrations are good-natured, they overlook a serious and growing problem.

A recent report by the Property and Environmental Research Center shows that the Park Service has a deferred maintenance backlog of nearly $12 billion – an amount five times higher than its latest budget from Congress. This total consists of all the maintenance projects that were not completed on schedule and therefore have been put off or delayed.

The symptoms of this backlog are rampant throughout our national parks. PERC found that nearly half of all national park roadways are rated in “fair” or “poor” condition; dozens of bridges are considered “structurally deficient”; and more than one-third of all trails in the entire park system are in “poor” or “seriously deficient” condition.

While these concerns seriously impacts the quality of visitors’ experiences, even more pressing is the impact the backlog is having on the environment. For example, a leaky wastewater system in Yosemite National Park has caused raw sewage to spill into the park’s streams. Incidents like the one noted above threaten the very resources the National Park Service was created to protect.

If the Park Service is going to continue offering the outdoor experiences to which the American public has become accustomed, it must make major changes as it enters its second century. While there’s no silver bullet, as a multi-pronged approach is necessary to address the backlog, the National Park Service should start with one simple step: Stop acquiring more land for the park system and start prioritizing the care and maintenance of existing lands.

Between 2011 and 2014, nearly $100 million was spent to add more than 100,000 acres to the National Park System. PERC notes the focus on land acquisition means that limited conservation dollars are spent at the expense of proper lands maintenance. Moreover, adding more public lands can exacerbate the problem because the federal government incurs even more liabilities, often with little or no means of maintaining the additional lands.

The National Park Service has a finite amount of resources to manage almost 80 million acres across the country. By acquiring more land than it can responsibly manage, the agency is doing a disservice to the American public and the environment. Fiscal and environmental stewardship go hand in hand when it comes to addressing the maintenance backlog of our national parks.

Matthew Anderson is a policy analyst for the Coalition for Self-Government in the West, a project of Sutherland Institute.

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