Note: This piece was first published in The Hill on September 9, 2019
By Jessica Wahl, Sandra Marra, Mary Ellen Sprenkel, Land Tawney and Kate Van Waes
America’s public lands and waters are our nation’s most treasured resources, but they face a serious problem – a lack of federal investment that has led to $19.3 billion in deferred maintenance. This backlog affects everything from the visitor experience, employee housing, public health and safety, to the economic well-being of rural communities. As Congress returns from August recess, it is critical that it take immediate steps to protect and maintain our public lands and waters for generations to come.
Federal land and water management agencies host roughly 1 billion visits annually and are essential to supporting a vibrant outdoor recreation economy and protecting cultural and environmental resources. Unfortunately, these treasures currently suffer from outdated and deteriorating facilities at a time when employees and visitors expect 21st century amenities, open and accessible trails, clean water, sustainable roads and more. While the National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) hold the largest share of the backlog, all major land management agencies (including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management) face mounting deferred maintenance needs that jeopardize outdoor recreation access, enjoyment and safety, as well as ecosystem health and security of cultural and historic heritage sites.
Because of this neglect, over 191,000 miles of trails, 81,000 buildings, 100,000 structures, and 470,000 miles of roads will need maintenance and repair or face the risk of no longer being accessible to the public. More than $1.3 billion of the NPS and USFS backlog is in recreation assets such as campgrounds, trails and marinas. This not only hurts the outdoor recreation industry – which accounts for 2.2 percent of the American economy and directly supports 4.5 million jobs – but also the gateway and rural communities that rely on those recreation activities to survive, as well as other sectors that utilize recreation on public lands as recruitment and retention strategies.
Fortunately, in a time of increasingly partisan battles and political stalemates, outdoor recreation and the protection of our national treasures is something around which everyone can rally. Indeed, there are bipartisan bills with almost 350 combined co-sponsors in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives that would initiate the rehabilitation and updating of infrastructure on our public lands and waters. Passing the Restore Our Parks Act and Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, respectively, are the first steps towards making sure visitors have access to safe and memorable outdoor experiences. These bills would create a dedicated fund for public land restoration using revenue from energy development, not taxpayer dollars.
This fall, Congress needs to take swift action to address the deferred maintenance and repair backlog of not just our national parks but other public lands and waters, especially those managed by the U.S. Forest Service, whose $5.2 billion backlog is second only to the National Park Service and is growing due to catastrophic wildfires.
The longer Congress allows this systemic backlog in maintenance to build up, the more challenging it will become for land management agencies to provide safe, high-quality outdoor recreation experiences that protect fragile ecosystems and respect the culture and history of the indigenous peoples who have stewarded these areas for centuries. Investments in our shared natural resources are not only investments in nature, cultural and historic sites, and rural and gateway communities, they’re also investments in America’s economic future. For every $1 invested in national parks, $10 is returned to the economy overall. As the National Park Service celebrates its 103rd birthday, the time has come to ensure that the next century of all our public lands and waters lives up to, learns from, and surpasses their first.
Sandra Marra is the President and CEO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). Established in 1925, the ATC leads the effort to protect, maintain and celebrate the A.T.
Mary Ellen Sprenkel is President & CEO of The Corps Network, the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps.
Land Tawney is President and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the voice for North America’s public lands and waters.
Kate Van Waes is Executive Director of the American Hiking Society, whose mission is to empower all to enjoy, share and preserve the hiking experience.
Jessica Wahl is Executive Director of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, America’s leading coalition of outdoor recreation trade associations and organizations working to promote the growth of the outdoor recreation economy and outdoor recreation activities.