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Funding the National Park System for the Next Century

On Thursday, July 25, the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing to consider supplemental funding options to support efforts by the National Park Service (NPS) to address deferred maintenance costs. Hearing witnesses included United States Senator Tom Coburn (OK) as well as the director of the National Park Service, Jonathan B. Jarvis, Hon. ASLA.

The major question raised at the hearing was how to ensure the long-term viability of the national park system. In the face of lower federal funding, national park infrastructure has severely deteriorated. Roads, bridges, trails, and buildings are all in need of maintenance and repair. According to NPS Director Jarvis, by the end of fiscal year 2012 (FY12), maintenance backlog costs had accumulated to approximately $11.5 billion. In order to keep the deferred maintenance backlog from growing, the NPS would need approximately $700 million a year.

While Director Jarvis emphasized that federal appropriations were most critical to the NPS, additional alternative funding methods were discussed. Suggestions for supplemental funding varied. Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (OR) and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (AK) want to explore a way to modify the park system’s fee structure to pay for park maintenance. Another method discussed was raising the federal gas tax by a penny and using the money for park maintenance. Senator Lamar Alexander (TN) suggested that roads could be paid for with user fees, or the costs could be handed over to the states. Jarvis rejected the idea of state responsibility, claiming that roads inside federal lands are a federal responsibility. Other suggestions for supplementary funding included creating an NPS endowment, raising park entrance fees, and establishing public–private matching funds. The committee and NPS plan to continue exploring options for funding park maintenance.

Senators Coburn and Alexander discussed one of the most controversial plans for funding NPS projects, which is to tap into the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to pay for deferred NPS road projects—which account for nearly half of the NPS maintenance backlog—in exchange for fully funding LWCF for a decade. Currently, the LWCF is used to fund federal land acquisitions aimed at preserving natural resources and for local parks and recreation projects. Many landscape architects around the country access the LWCF to plan and design local community parks and recreation projects.

Established in 1965, LWCF is already paid for through offshore oil and natural gas receipts. Nearly 50 years ago, Congress made a commitment to the American public that a small portion of revenues from offshore drilling would go to natural resource conservation and outdoor recreation programs as an offset for the depletion of the offshore oil and gas resources that belong to American citizens. While Congress has agreed to put as much as $900 million into the fund every year, this total has never been reached. In FY2013, LWCF received about $332 million.

Director Jarvis and Senator Maria Cantwell (WA) rejected the notion of accessing the LWCF to pay for NPS maintenance, claiming that land acquisition is a necessary component in our role as environmental stewards. Using LWCF for maintenance would change the program’s mission.

Tell us what you think. If full funding for LWCF was guaranteed, would you support using the fund to pay off the NPS’s maintenance backlog in this way? ASLA encourages you to voice your opinion in the comment section below!

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