Op-Ed

Letting national parks crumble ought to be unthinkable

The (Tacoma) News Tribune editorial board

Wildflowers at Eunice Lake and Spray Park in Mt. Rainier National Park bloom in 2010. Washington legislators have introduced a bill that would allow the Park Service to take gradual steps to address a daunting backlog of deferred maintenance projects.
Wildflowers at Eunice Lake and Spray Park in Mt. Rainier National Park bloom in 2010. Washington legislators have introduced a bill that would allow the Park Service to take gradual steps to address a daunting backlog of deferred maintenance projects. The News Tribune file

At a time when talk of America’s failing infrastructure focuses on roads, bridges and airports, leave it to a pair of Puget Sound area congressmen to bring vital attention to our crumbling national parks system.

Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, are part of a bipartisan team that recently introduced the National Park Service Legacy Act. If it passes as we hope, the Park Service will be able to take gradual steps to address a daunting backlog of deferred maintenance projects.

When the Park Service celebrated its centennial last year, we learned that politicians of both parties can talk a good game.

In some spots, erosion and other forces make going for a hike a safety hazard, so it seems a little reckless and a lot stupid to continue to put off maintenance and not preserve these lands for future generations.

They like to wax poetic with some serious sea-to-shining-sea rhetoric. They’ll use words like “uniquely American” and “cultural heritage” and probably throw in a quote from at least one of the Roosevelts. But the truth is, national parks traditionally score pretty low on the priority list; they account for roughly one-fourteenth of 1 percent of the federal budget.

Meanwhile, the project backlog is closing in on $12 billion, according to the National Park Service.

In 2016, the NPS saw a record 330 million visits, but decades of rising use are taking a toll. Roads, visitor facilities, electric and water systems, trails and cultural and historic artifacts have fallen into disrepair.

Many roads are closed indefinitely or reduced to one lane due to storm damage or deferred maintenance. Veteran outdoor writer Craig Hill says some trail damage at Mount Rainier is more than a decade old, dating to the historic floods of 2006.

In some spots, erosion and other forces make going for a hike a safety hazard, so it seems a little reckless and a lot stupid to continue to put off maintenance and not preserve these lands for future generations.

Kilmer told the TNT’s editorial board this week that he feels good about the bill’s prospects on Capitol Hill because it’s both bipartisan and bicameral. And President Donald Trump? He showed at least a passing fancy in the Park Service when he donated his first three months salary to the agency.

Kilmer and Reichert’s plan would tap oil and natural gas royalties that Uncle Sam already collects; it would gradually increase annual distributions between now and 2047, starting at $50 million a year from 2018-20. With that plan, the park system at least could catch up on its current project backlog over time.

People who visit national parks for recreation and wildlife that live there wouldn’t be the only beneficiaries. Every tax dollar invested in the park system generates $10 in economic activity within 60 miles of national park sites, according a NPS study.

In 2016, visitors spent $16.9 billion in local communities. Ashford and Elbe in Washington can testify to the spinoff benefits.

Last year President Obama signed the National Park Service Centennial Act, the first significant effort to rebuild park infrastructure in more than 50 years. It created public-private partnerships, but it was only a partial fix.

Outside partners might be quick to save high-profile treasures like the Liberty Bell or Alcatraz, but keeping the visitor center open and maintained at the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park doesn’t have the same appeal.

The bipartisan National Park Service Legacy Act will ensure visitor centers remain open and critical repairs made. To let our revered parks go to ruin as the NPS enters its second 100 years is unthinkable.

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