How much will Great American Outdoors Act funding help Montana’s national parks?

Management teams throughout the park system, including Glacier National Park, will soon gather around tables – probably keeping 6-foot spacing around outdoor picnic tables – to decide which projects to put on the maintenance list. (file photo)

The National Park Service may soon get a fresh pot of money to pay for long-overdue maintenance, but it might not make a big dent in the backlog of Montana’s national parks.

After passing the U.S. House of Representatives last week, the Great American Outdoors Act is still waiting for President Trump’s signature. Once Trump signs the act, the National Park Service has 90 days – probably until the end of October – to put together a list of maintenance projects throughout the national parks system that will be considered for the GAOA funding in fiscal year 2021.

Management teams throughout the park system, including Glacier National Park, will soon gather around tables – probably keeping 6-foot spacing around outdoor picnic tables – to decide which projects to put on the list.

“We’ve got the work to do,” said Glacier National Park spokesperson Gina Kertzman. “There’s no shortage of use for those funds. Glacier is so huge and has so many facilities. The list is endless.”

By the end of 2018, Glacier National Park had accumulated more than $131 million in deferred maintenance, while Yellowstone National Park had $22 million, according to NPS Infrastructure Fact Sheets.

But it’s not as easy as just taking the highest-priority projects and submitting them for GAOA funding.

“There are a lot of different funding streams. So the Great American Outdoors Act is one of many funding streams. It’s not our silver bullet,” Kertzman said.

The park system is funded through a complex formula that includes federal appropriations, revenue generated from concessions and user fees, private philanthropy and in-kind donations. Some of the grants are available only for certain uses, such as historic buildings.

Kertzman gave the example of a small bridge on a side road in the park that needs repair. If they were to use the GAOA money, they would be limited to restoring the bridge back to its original condition. They wouldn’t be allowed to modify it or upgrade it to bear more weight.

“So we ask, ‘is that really a deferred maintenance project? Or is it more of a Federal Highways project?’” Kertzman said. “That’s what we have to decide on each one and some projects may be more specialized so they don’t have as many options. You go down the list to find the best funding source.”

The problem is this funding model creates wide variation in the resources available to different park units and is volatile from year to year. Now the GAOA will add another option, but there are no guarantees any one project will be funded.

“A lot still has to play out – they have to write the policy on how those funds will get dispersed,” Kertzman said.

The National Park Service may soon get a fresh pot of money from the Great American Outdoors Act to pay for long-overdue maintenance, but it might not make a big dent in the backlog of Montana’s national parks. (Missoula Current file photo)

Under the GAOA, for each year through 2025, half of all the revenue collected during the previous year for oil, gas, coal or renewable energy production on federal land and water will go into the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund, up to a limit of $1.9 billion.

The fund should always hit that mark – revenue from energy production in 2019 totaled $11.7 billion. The National Park system gets 70% of the fund total, so that’s $1.33 billion a year.

However, that amount has to be spread out across 419 national parks, and most of them have dozens of maintenance projects waiting to be completed. A September 2018 review found that almost $12 billion worth of deferred maintenance exists throughout the national parks system, with roughly half of the backlog tied to roads and bridges.

Plus, some projects don’t come cheap, so it might not take many to eat up the annual budget. For example, Glacier National Park is in the process of rehabilitating the Going-to-the-Sun Road at a cost of $31 million and another $16.8 million is being spent on replacing utilities along Lake McDonald.

Another problem is the time lag associated with bigger maintenance projects. Many aren’t sitting around ready to go, just waiting for the check to be written. Teams will have to do analyses of existing structures, design the repair job and get it approved through the public process before they can start moving or replacing anything. By then, two of the five years may have gone by.

So, time will tell if the GAOA can put polish on very many parks. Once it expires, the park system will have to readjust its funding equation to account for one less funding stream.

In the meantime, the parks may have a challenge keeping up with routine maintenance this year due to coronavirus-related crowding. Visitation has been lower overall – Yellowstone National Park visitation was down by a third compare to last June – but the west side of Glacier NP has been packed because the east side is inaccessible due to the Blackfeet Reservation closure.

Glacier National Park normally has about $15 million worth of annual routine maintenance. This year, maintenance requirements may be less for visitor centers that haven’t opened, particularly on the east side of the park, but the result is trails, parking lots and the Going-to-the-Sun Road on the west side may require more maintenance.

“That’s made it really interesting this year. There are fewer attractions and places to mill around. So what you’re down to is the Going-to-the-Sun Road and hiking,” Kertzman said. “The parking lots are filling up just as fast as ever. There’s more of a strain on the Logan Pass parking lot now that the Highline Trail is open.”

 Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.