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Conservation News

What the New Federal Infrastructure Plan Means for Backpackers

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the president have a plan to tackle the National Park Service's $11.7 billion maintenance shortfall. But it could come at the expense of other public lands.

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grand canyon

One of the National Park Service’s longstanding problems is its backlog of deferred maintenance, which currently sits at $11.7 billion. A new infrastructure plan developed alongside the president’s budget for 2019 aims to remedy that.

The president’s budget is a wishlist for how he’d allocate funds, and some of those ideas receive a warmer reception than others. President Trump has repeatedly suggested cutting the budget for the Department of Interior, which includes the National Park Service, and reducing jobs there.

In its latest omnibus spending bill, Congress rejected that plan, instead increasing the NPS budget by 9 percent.

But some of the administration’s ideas are starting to gain traction, and legislation that mirrors the president’s plan has seen been discussed in congressional committees this month. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been working hard to sell that plan to Congress, writing in a March 20 piece in The Washington Times, “President Trump is a builder, and as the son of a plumber myself, I’m excited to being working with him on restoring the greatness of America’s treasures.”

The new plan could set aside as much as $18 billion for repairs, mostly in the frontcountry.

The proposed Public Lands Infrastructure Fund would provide up to $18 billion for maintenance at national parks, national wildlife refuges, and in Bureau of Indian Education schools. Popular parks like the Everglades, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon would all stand to benefit from improvements like new visitor centers, repaired roads, and upgraded water infrastructure.

If you were hoping to see that $18 billion go to new trails or campgrounds, however, think again: About half the maintenance backlog is for paved roads and structures. Much of the rest of it is in facilities operated by private concessionaires who have declined to maintain snack bars, restaurants, and lodges.

According to Zinke, maintaining those access points will “bolster gateway communities” and improve the frontcountry experience for the majority of guests, who don’t venture much further than popular viewpoints.

“Not all visitors to our parks and public lands have the ability to hike with a 30-pound pack and camp in the wilderness miles away from utilities,” he said in a statement. “In order for families with young kids or elderly grandparents to enjoy the parks, we need to rebuild basic infrastructure like roads, trails, lodges, restrooms and visitors centers.”

Zinke testified to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that this is “the largest investment in our public lands infrastructure in our nation’s history.” (Fact-checkers at PolitiFact called that claim “dubious”: under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, investment in the Civilian Conservation Corps, which undertook projects throughout America’s public lands, totaled $53 billion when adjusted for inflation.)

The money would largely come from drilling.

It turns out the words “up to” before that $18 billion figure are important. The funding for these repairs would come from increased energy development on federal lands and waters, and totals could come in far lower, particularly given the vagaries of energy prices. Oil sold for $140 per barrel just a few years ago, and now it’s down around $60.

In an op-ed in The Hill, Representatives Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) trumpeted the bipartisan support for reducing the maintenance backlog at national parks and the sense of urgency all sides feel to address this challenge.

“Part of the solution is the creation of a dedicated fund that would draw a stable revenue stream from energy leases the federal government owns, as has been proposed in the President’s FY2019 budget,” they wrote. “While some may object to using oil and gas leasing revenues to promote conservation, this isn’t a new idea. It has been a longstanding policy and priority of the United States to be good stewards of the revenues created by energy production to further conservation efforts.”

Conservationists aren’t wild about the plan.

The proposal has received a much more tepid response from conservationists like Land Tawney, CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

“It’s setting up for this energy-dominant conversation,” he says. “That’s not good for any Americans except for the select few who stand to make money off it.”

“[This administration has] repeatedly and consistently talked about doing maintenance first and only addressing the maintenance backlog without looking at the future conservation needs,” adds Jonathan Asher, who works on the government relations team for The Wilderness Society. “If you’re going to say you need to solve that before you think about addressing any other conservation need in the country, that’s just short-sighted.”

“This is the first time we’ve seen an administration that just doesn’t seem to get the value of conserving new places,” Asher continues, “and that gives us some heartburn.”   

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