Funding national park repairs would give new Congress an early win

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Funding national park repairs would give new Congress an early win
By Marcia Argust, contributor - 01/03/17 09:40 AM EST 20


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As a new president and Congress prepare to assume leadership in Washington, they should start their work with a unifying issue: fixing America's national parks.

Among our country's proudest legacies, the parks — along with battlefields, memorials, historic homes and other places managed by the National Park Service (NPS) — need almost $12 billion for repairs ranging from aging, unsafe electrical systems to eroded trails and crumbling bridges.

Any large-scale infrastructure initiatives proposed by the new administration and Congress must include a commitment to fix our parks, to restore these national treasures and create jobs.

The items on the NPS deferred maintenance list are not trivial. The agency manages and maintains more than 75,000 assets across rural and urban areas. Those properties include natural lands, cultural and historic artifacts, trails, campgrounds, electrical and water systems, and more than 10,000 miles of roads within the parks.
Of the $12 billion the NPS estimates it would cost to fix its repair backlog, $4.8 billion worth is for park property or facilities that are considered critical to the agency's mission and to providing a positive experience for park visitors.

Examples include a perennially leaky waterline that spans the Grand Canyon and provides all the drinkable water for millions of visitors each year; leaking roofs in many buildings in the Martin Luther King Jr. national historic district, including the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church; and more than $30 million in trail repairs at Mammoth Cave National Park near Bowling Green, Kentucky — the world's longest known cave system, with more than 400 miles of explored underground paths. Half of the backlog is for repairs to NPS roads, bridges and tunnels.

The benefits of investing in national park infrastructure are real. An NPS report released last spring showed that every tax dollar invested in the park system generates $10 in economic activity. In 2015, for example, visitors spent $16.9 billion in communities within 60 miles of national park sites, helping to support 295,000 jobs and creating a $32 billion benefit to the national economy.

Beyond the economics, the NPS needs safe and accessible facilities to serve a wide variety of visitors, including the very young, the elderly and the physically challenged. The NPS faces a particular test in making its sites welcoming to children, many of whom benefit greatly from the healthy, affordable educational and recreational opportunities that parks provide.

This is a fitting time to start the vital work of restoring America's natural treasures. In 2016, the Park Service marked its 100th anniversary, and while the agency used the milestone to celebrate its history and promote its sites, much of the NPS infrastructure is showing its age. Many sites and facilities are at least 50 years old and are struggling under the pressure of steadily increasing use, which reached a record of 307 million visits in 2015.

The new Congress should take its cue from the 84th Congress, which met in 1955. Then, as now, the NPS faced a significant maintenance backlog, with many parks deteriorating after decades of rising use — at the time, a result of the strong postwar economy and the mobility enabled by the nascent Interstate highway system.

In 1956, Congress approved a plan called Mission 66 to address the flagging conditions within a decade, spending $1 billion to fix our parks — equivalent to more than $7 billion in today's dollars. Ten years later, workers had built some 100 new visitor centers and made repairs that improved the guest experience throughout the National Park System.

As the Park Service enters its second century — with 50 years having passed since the culmination of the agency's last significant effort to rebuild infrastructure — the time has come for Congress to renew its commitment to our national parks.

The outgoing Congress recently passed and the president just signed into law the National Park Service Centennial Act, which could generate up to $50 million to address park needs, including deferred maintenance. The measure is a start, and a sign of hope, but the incoming Congress must build on it to keep the $12 billion backlog from escalating.

Our national parks are part of the American legacy and an important part of our economy. They help showcase our rich and diverse culture, our ever-evolving history, and the shared experiences that make us Americans. Now, however, the need to repair them is increasingly apparent to visitors, park managers and community businesses that depend on the parks for their livelihood.

By investing in critical repairs throughout the National Park System, lawmakers will generate jobs and enable rangers to fulfill the NPS's 100-year-old mission to protect our national treasures for this and future generations.

Marcia Argust directs The Pew Charitable Trusts' work to restore our national parks.

National Parks maintenance backlog reaches $11.9 billion

WASHINGTON – The National Park Service (NPS) this week released its Fiscal Year 2015 deferred maintenance statistics for national parks. The $11.93 billion nationwide total is a $440 million increase from the previous year.

Deferred maintenance is necessary work – performed on infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, visitor centers, trails and campgrounds – that has been delayed for more than one year. Aging facilities, increasing use of park facilities and scarce resources contribute to the growing backlog.

“While Congress provided increases this year, the annual bill for maintenance in America’s national parks is still almost twice as much as is appropriated,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis.

Congressional funding for the National Park Service in 2016 includes an additional $90 million for non-transportation maintenance. Congress also passed a new highway bill which will provide a $28 million increase for transportation projects in parks this year. Funding for transportation-related maintenance and construction will continue to rise, by $8 million per year for five years, until it reaches $300 million per year in 2020.

Nearly every unit in the National Park System has maintenance items that have been deferred. Regions regularly evaluate and prioritize project submissions to ensure available dollars make a difference, and will be using the new funds to address the highest priorities. For details about deferred maintenance at a particular national park, visit and click on the "NPS Asset Inventory Summary by Park" report.

Even though more maintenance items had to be deferred in 2015, these increases from Congress are welcome. Jarvis said they are part of a multifaceted approach to end the growth of deferred maintenance and eventually have enough resources to keep pace with annual maintenance responsibilities.

“We have a lot yet to do but I think everything is moving in the right direction,” Jarvis said of the deferred maintenance issue. “Congress has pitched in with base funding and with additional funds for the Centennial Challenge – a program that enables us to leverage private and non-profit partner contributions to complete important projects that improve visitor services in parks. There is more Congress can do through the Centennial Act now under consideration including short-term mandatory appropriations.”
Increase in National Park Fees Proposed

WASHINGTON — On the cusp of the peak vacation season, the National Park Service unveiled a plan Friday that could increase visitor fees at national parks to as much as $5 per person and ease restrictions against the use of private or corporate funds on public lands.

The proposal, billed by the Clinton Administration as a reform of the park system, would eliminate congressional caps on park fees and give the Interior secretary, currently Bruce Babbitt, the authority to raise them unilaterally.

If the Interior Department plan is approved by Congress--in what promises to be an uphill fight--it would abandon the system of charging fees by the carload and enable the department to assess an entry fee for each person in a vehicle.

Visitors to Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and the Death Valley National Monument in California could expect to pay $5 each, up from $5 per carload or $3 per individual, if the plan is approved. (Sequoia and Kings Canyon are administered as one park and one visitor fee would be charged for entry to both.)


At some of the nation's most popular parks, like Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona or Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Wyoming, individual entry fees would rise to $5, an increase of only $1. But the blanket $10 charge per car, which allowed inexpensive entry to larger groups traveling together, would be discontinued.

In addition, the Park Service would raise new funds by establishing higher user fees for camping, docking or use of horse trails.

Park officials said the proposal would increase overall revenues by $72 million by 1996. In a significant departure from current practice, part of the money raised would be returned directly to the parks--a reform that officials said would boost both the collection of the fees and the morale of overworked rangers.

The funds would improve the rangers' ability to maintain park trails and other facilities, officials said, contending that rangers have increasingly had to cope with growing crowds and shrinking operating budgets.

The legislation would also give broad authority to the Interior secretary to enter into cost-sharing and operating agreements with local governments, private organizations and corporations. Details were not spelled out.

"We believe people are prepared to pay more" if they believe their park fees will improve the parks they visit, said George T. Frampton Jr., assistant secretary of the Interior. "This is the right way to go."

But the plan promises to stir controversy on Capitol Hill, where it would have to win approval before it could be implemented. Historically, Congress has been reluctant to give up authority over national park fees.

By giving the Interior secretary the discretion to set fees and seek the public-private partnerships, the plan would return park-management practices to those of the 1970s, before Congress established caps on entry fees.

National park booster groups hailed the proposal as a good start in upgrading the quality of the parks, but some environmentalists warned that fee increases could put the public lands out of reach of some citizens.

The proposal to return a portion of the revenues directly to the parks also is likely to meet with opposition.

Under current practice dictated by Congress, park funds are placed in a special account within the Treasury. The money, along with additional appropriations from Congress, is disbursed among the nation's 367 parks according to a formula submitted by the Interior Department and approved by Congress.


The bill proposed Friday would plow half of the newly raised revenues back into the parks directly. Park Service officials said that would give harried park rangers more incentive to collect fees--a task that often goes undone while rangers deal with more pressing problems.

An Interior Department audit released Friday indicated that the government is losing as much as $105 million a year by failing to collect charges already authorized by Congress.

According to the audit, only $68 million in fees was collected in 1993 from 273 million visitors to the parks, monuments and recreation areas--an average of less than 25 cents per person.

Park officials said that while they would like to collect more fees, they often are forced to leave collection stations unmanned because they lack the funds to hire more collectors.

In addition, the National Parks and Conservation Assn.--an independent group of national park users--estimated that the parks face a maintenance-and-repair bill of $2.2 billion--a figure that continues to grow.

Even if Friday's proposal is approved, officials said, more needs to be done.

Reps. George Miller (D-Martinez) and Bruce F. Vento (D-Minn.), both leading members of the House Natural Resources Committee, are working on a more comprehensive proposal to reform the Park Service and find new ways to keep up with long-term maintenance-and-repair costs.

Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (REA)
This Act, Public Law 108-447 (118 Stat. 2809), enacted by Congress as part of the 2005 Omnibus Appropriations Bill and signed into law by President Bush on December 8, 2004, allows the government to charge a fee for recreational use of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Park Service (NPS) and the Forest Service (USFS). The recreation fee program is a program by which fees paid by visitors to certain federal recreation sites are retained by the collecting site and used to improve the quality of the visitor experiences at those sites. Since 1985, visitation has increased approximately 80 percent on National Wildlife Refuges, resulting in an increase in demand for adequate facilities and services, such as toilets, developed parking, water, and maintained trails, as well as a greater need to expend funds to protect the natural and cultural resources that are often the very reason visitors are drawn to a particular site. Recreation fees allow the agencies to meet this visitor demand while delivering quality recreation, heritage and wilderness opportunities, and protecting our natural resources.

Recreation fees are not new. Some recreation fees date back to 1908, when Congress first established broad recreation fee authority under the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act. Under this and other authorities, land management agencies have charged for many recreational activities, services, and entrance to federal lands. In the past, most of these fees have gone directly to the U.S. Treasury. Congress further recognized the need to provide additional resources to address the backlog of maintenance on federal lands when it authorized the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program in 1996.

The REA provides new authority to address public concerns about the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program (See also: Emergency Wetlands Resources Act of 1986) by limiting fees within some agencies to those sites that have a specified minimum level of development and meet specific criteria. Additional safeguards include specific requirements to provide the public with information about fees and how fee revenues will be used. The Act provides agencies with recreation fee authority for 10 years, which will allow the agencies to improve the efficiency of the program, provide better facilities and services to the visitors, employ greater use of technology, and enter into more fee management agreements with counties and other entities to provide additional services to visitors. Finally, the Act requires reports to Congress every three years on the status of the recreation fee program for Federal recreational lands and waters.

The law differentiates among the participating bureaus and agencies. The NPS and FWS units in the National Wildlife Refuge System may charge entrance fees (although the public may still use a current year Duck Stamp to gain entrance to refuges). The other participating bureaus and agencies may charge "standard amenity fees" where specific criteria are met. The FWS and NPS may also charge "expanded amenity fees" for use of a specialized facility, equipment, or service. The other bureaus and agencies may charge "expanded amenity fees" in those areas where additional amenities are provided, such as boat launches, rental cabins, electrical hookups, dump stations, enhanced interpretive services, reservations, transportation, swimming facilities, and picnicking. A special recreation permit fee will also be allowed for specialized recreation uses such as group activities, recreation events and motorized vehicle use.

This Act authorized a new interagency pass family called the "America the Beautiful - National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Passes". They will replace the Golden Eagle, Golden Age, and Golden Access Passports and will do away with the National Parks Pass. The new passes will have an annual, senior, and disabled version, much like the Golden Passports, as well as a new Interagency Volunteer Pass (1-year), for volunteers who accrue 500 volunteer hours. The Interagency Annual Pass (1-year) will be $80; the Interagency Senior Pass will be $10 (lifetime) for US citizens aged 62 or older; and the Interagency Access Pass will be free (lifetime) to US citizens with permanent disabilities. In addition, there will be hangtags that display the pass inside a vehicle at unstaffed sites, and decals for pass holders' use with open-topped vehicles or motorcycles parked at unstaffed sites. The new passes should be available in January 2007.

The majority of the fees collected will be reinvested back into the collection site to enhance visitor services and reduce the backlog of maintenance needs for recreation facilities such as trail maintenance, toilet facilities, boat ramps, hunting blinds, and interpretive signs and programs. Bureaus and agencies may not use recreation fees to pay for biological monitoring of threatened and endangered species or to pay employee bonuses.
So under Clinton entry fees were disbursed according to a schedule set by the Interior Department. Under GW Bush that was changed under the Federal Lands Enhancement Act. The major parks all point out this isn't enough because the lose the entry fees from seniors, disabled, etc. who all get a special break on entry to the parks.
Then there is Aramark... remember they are not the people responsible for trails, etc, that is NPS, but they are responsible for other things and they do help out with things like the Trash Tracker and Graffiti boats. Since there was some comments on their salaries their site states they pay from $9.15 for basic jobs to $25 for mechanics, etc.

And here is their contract for all areas of the lake...
Waterbaby, that concessionaires contract is for Del Webb and expired a decade ago. Is that really the most current contract? Did Aramark buy out Del Webb?
Who owns, holds title, for the current infrastructure? Who owns the hotel, the service station, all the slips and the buoy field? The concessionaire or the NPS?
Looking at the existing/obsolete contract, I have to assume that as there is no current contract that the "Set Aside" fund is no longer getting contributions. I wonder where it's going? Infrastructure improvements?
Aramark bought out Del Webb and holds title to their stuff but as far as the land title goes,I don't know, but would have to believe they lease from NPS. NPS does a review and approval process about every 10 years. I bought a few rental boats from aramark and titles were in Aramarks name.
Waterbaby, that concessionaires contract is for Del Webb and expired a decade ago. Is that really the most current contract? Did Aramark buy out Del Webb?

Yes, Aramark bought out Del Webb. Del Webb controlled everything on the lake other than Halls Crossing for a long time - we used to make the drive to Halls because the private [family-owned] operation was so much better than what was offered through Del Webb. The problem with Aramard - IMHO - is lack of competition. When you do not have competition you take advantage of not having competition - [think of the Bell Telephone break up and how phones became better once there was competition among carriers]... I'm not a fan of buy outs of buy outs, etc...
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