The federal government has a more than $12 billion backlog of facilities at national parks and other federal lands that are in dire need of repairs, according to Trump administration officials.
“After years of increased visitation and use, aging facilities and other vital structures are in urgent need of restoration,” National Park Service director Daniel Smith and Steve Guertin, deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told Congress.
Top Department of the Interior officials appeared before the House Committee on Natural Resources on Tuesday to discuss the federal government’s growing maintenance backlog. It’s also a problem for schools managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Smith said.
For example, the Cheyenne Eagle Butte School “is in urgent need of a variety of repairs, especially structural,” he said, adding “[c]lassrooms have been closed due to the presence of dangerous mold, numerous roof leaks allow water to seep through three floors of classrooms, and repetitive heating system failures have caused two weeks of lost instruction during the current academic year.”
“Kindergarten students alone have been displaced from their regular classrooms for three years,” Smith said.
In total, the department has a $16 billion deferred maintenance backlog, most of which is from lands managed by the National Park Service (NPS). About half NPS’s maintenance backlog was for roads and transportation infrastructure.
President Donald Trump’s administration proposed a “Public Lands Infrastructure Fund” to help alleviate the growing maintenance backlog. Smith and Guertin pressed lawmakers to support the parks fund, which would syphon off revenues from oil, gas and coal leases on federal lands.
Both parties agree the maintenance backlog needs to be addressed, yet Democrats largely oppose Trump’s public lands fund.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, the committee’s ranking Democratic member, doesn’t want to use mineral lease revenues to fund national parks and refuges. Grijalva said it’s foolish to rely on fossil fuel extraction.
“Gas and oil royalties pay 8, 9, 10 percent depending, and that is not going to be enough. There are already thousands and thousands of permits that have never been used,” Grijalva said in February.
However, natural resource revenues are increasing due to rising prices. The Interior Department brought in $7 billion from energy production royalties and fees in 2017.
Bridges and trails at national wildlife refuges are in need of repair, Guertin noted. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) manages hundreds of refuges across the country with a maintenance backlog of $1.4 billion.
For example, public access at the Big Oaks refuge in Indiana “is impaired because a deteriorated, unsafe bridge with trees growing through it on the refuge has been closed since 2001.”
Access to the Wallkill River refuge in New Jersey “is also significantly reduced because its Papakating Valley Rail Trail has been closed since 2010 due to extensive, dangerous degradation,” Guertin said. “Rehabilitating it will expand 9.5 miles of former railroad beds into multi-purpose public trails.”
Trump’s proposed public lands fund would allow the FWS to “seek compensation” from people who damage or vandalize wildlife refuges, Guertin said. Under current law, damages must be paid out of congressional appropriations, adding to the maintenance backlog.
“These damages are not uncommon,” Guertin said. “Each year vandalism, trespassing, and other violations damage FWS assets.”
“One example is a case of illegally created roads through Sequoyah refuge, Oklahoma, causing over $175,000 in estimated damages,” he said. “Another is a trespass and illegal excavation of a pipeline at San Bernard refuge, Texas, with estimated response and repair costs of $7.5 million.”
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