Montana Voices: Repair national parks for ‘this and future generations’

Glacier National Park has a $199 million backlog of maintenance work. (Sherry Devlin/Missoula Current)

By Hobie Hare

The National Park Service, now 100 years old, “preserves unimpaired the natural resources and values of the national park system, for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations.”

Yet today, the agency is struggling to fulfill its mission to preserve and protect over 400 national park units spanning 84 million acres of land. The National Park Service has a $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog, which would be further exacerbated by a proposed budget cut to the Interior Department’s funding.

Over $3 billion alone is needed to restore historic sites and structures such as the Statue of Liberty National Monument, in need of $160 million in repairs. The president’s federal hiring freeze certainly doesn’t help matters.

Ironically, national parks visitation continues to soar as the agency’s funding and staffing has dropped. Our national parks had 331 million visitors in 2015.

Here in Montana, visitation in Glacier National Park reached nearly 3 million visitors last year, breaking records for three years running. Yet crumbling roads and backcountry trails need attention, as do some visitor centers and contact stations that haven’t been updated for decades. Shuttle buses run less frequently and a shorter season.

Along the way, park resources become more imperiled, and visitor experiences become diminished if we allow this backlog to continue unaddressed. Of the $265 million in deferred maintenance projects needed for Montana’s seven national park units, $199 million is needed to address Glacier’s backlog.

As one of the largest draws of tourists to Montana, national parks generated over $487 million in visitor spending in 2015 while supporting over 8,000 jobs. Montana had over 5.6 million visitors to its national park units in 2016.

Tackling the backlog of $12 billion would be a wise investment not only for national parklands, but for their neighboring communities nationwide. By investing in our national parks, we will not only be better prepared to protect our parks for our and future generations, but also the gateway communities, outfitters, and businesses that depend on them for local revenues. Kicking repairs even further down the road only makes things worse, eventually more expensive to fix, not to mention increase the political difficulty of making this happen.

National Parks Week is April 15-23. It’s the responsibility of Congress to fund the National Park Service with the resources it needs to fulfill its mission and to work with the president to make it a priority. National parks represent who we are as a nation, and what we value. We are interim caretakers and stewards of these priceless lands for today’s and for future generations. Let’s give them the funding to properly run our parks.

The late Wallace Stegner said that “national parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” Let your congressional representatives know how important national parks are to you and ask them to do what’s best to protect these irreplaceable lands that belong to all Americans.

One measure recently introduced in the Senate, the National Park Service Legacy Act (sponsored by Sens. Portman, R-Ohio, and Warner, D-Virginia, would get more money available to tackle the deferred maintenance backlog. It would send half a billion dollars annually to the NPS from existing revenues the federal government gets for oil and gas royalties every year from now until 2047.

This act would help us begin to address the backlog to help protect the parks, and create a better experience for visitors and for neighboring park communities.

Hobie Hare is a Missoula writer and developer of the app, “Nature Boy Free.”