The mountains, canyons, and waterfalls we admire in America’s national parks will last forever, or at least until the next geological epoch.
Everything else in the parks requires maintenance.
And that takes money, lots of money, which our national parks haven’t had enough of for years. Even as visits to many national parks have soared, the National Park Service (NPS) has received inconsistent annual funding and has absorbed budget cuts that forced the postponement of all but the most urgent maintenance projects, leading to a national backlog estimated at $12 billion.
As park infrastructure ages, it deteriorates, and parks may become less accessible, more hazardous, and less beneficial to the local communities whose economies depend on the billions of dollars that park visitors spend. Run-down facilities also tarnish the reputation of the National Park System, which has been a global model for land and historic conservation.
For nearly five years, helping to restore the national parks has been a priority for The Pew Charitable Trusts, which has worked with organizations and communities across the country. So it was good news in August when a politically polarized Congress came together to pass the Great American Outdoors Act with overwhelming bipartisan support. The landmark legislation was quickly signed into law by President Donald Trump.
The law establishes the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund, which will direct up to $1.9 billion annually for the next five years for priority repairs within national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management lands, and Bureau of Indian Education schools. The NPS will receive $1.3 billion of that funding each year.
The act also provides full and permanent funding of $900 million a year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has been used for more than 50 years to protect natural and cultural treasures in every state, from national parks and endangered species to historic battlefields and local parks and playgrounds.
Financing for the act, which represents the largest investment in maintenance and preservation of America’s parks and public lands since the Eisenhower administration, comes from nontaxpayer dollars in the form of mineral revenues from energy development on federally owned lands and waters.
“For too long, the National Park Service has not had the funding necessary to properly maintain our natural and cultural resources,” says Senator Mark R. Warner (D-VA), one of the bill’s leading cosponsors. “Now, thanks to this remarkably bipartisan effort, our national parks will receive a needed shot in the arm that will cut the deferred maintenance backlog in half and help preserve these treasures for future generations to enjoy.”
His Senate colleague Lamar Alexander (R-TN), one of the bill’s most vocal supporters, is a longtime advocate for the national parks with a deep affection for the Great Smoky Mountains in his home state. He calls the new law “the most important and significant conservation and outdoor recreation legislation in at least half a century,” adding that “good people have been trying since 1964 to enact permanent funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.”
Pew’s restore America’s parks campaign was initiated in 2015 at the suggestion of Lyda Hill, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who has partnered with Pew on a number of environmental, health, and science initiatives. An ardent fan of the national parks, Hill was dismayed by the park system’s maintenance backlog, which left many of America’s national treasures with washed-out trails, crumbling roads, decades-old water and electrical systems, and deteriorating historic structures.
“I saw an urgent need and wanted to do something about it,” Hill recalls. “Partnering with Pew meant I’d be working with an organization that could pinpoint what needed to be done and provide measures of success so that we could deliver the critical investment our national parks deserved.”
Pew focused on raising public awareness of the problem, building support across the nation, and educating lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The restore America’s parks campaign built a ground-up coalition of groups and individuals to focus attention on NPS maintenance needs in communities across the U.S., and thousands of national and local groups mobilized in support of restoring the parks. By 2019, more than 8 in 10 Americans surveyed in a Pew-commissioned poll supported federal legislation to fix the national park repair backlog.
The funding arrives not a moment too soon.
Thousands of projects are in the queue for repairs, including building repairs and repaving of potholed roads at Yellowstone National Park. At the Grand Canyon, millions of dollars are needed to fix the Transcanyon Water Distribution Pipeline, the South Rim’s only source of potable water, which has been patched together for a decade. The park headquarters at Acadia National Park has a cracked foundation and a heaving roof. And at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are roads to resurface, bridges to rebuild, and water and sewage systems to update.
Great Smoky Mountains is the most popular national park in the country, visited last year by more than 12.5 million people drawn to the historic buildings, charismatic wildlife, and scenic vistas: mountains draped in ghostly, low-hanging clouds that drift across thickly forested hillsides like woodsmoke rising from some frontiersman’s lonely homestead. When those White pioneers arrived in the late 1700s, they learned that native Cherokee called this country Sha-kon-o-hey, place of the blue smoke—and the name stuck.
This past June, as the nation locked down during the COVID-19 pandemic, more people visited the park than in any June in history, most of them in motor vehicles creeping single file along the park’s forested two-lane roads, eyes peeled for a glimpse of Ursus americanus, the iconic black bear.
“Most of our infrastructure is 50 years old or older,” says Alan Sumeriski, a laconic 52-year-old park ranger who’s worked as a steward of federal lands since college. These days he’s a decorated NPS veteran who oversees maintenance as the Great Smoky Mountains facilities chief.
“Aside from the roads, the biggest challenge we have is underground,” Sumeriski says, citing the hidden network of aging pipes and tanks at 27 water-pumping stations and treatment plants around the park. “It’s like when the car manufacturer recommends you change your oil every 5,000 miles. If you miss the interval and never scrape together the money to do the required maintenance, your car may run for a while. But you’re living on borrowed time.”
Sumeriski’s warning was borne out in August, when the water and sewage system failed at Elkmont, one of the park’s most popular campgrounds. The roots of a sycamore tree finally strangled and burst the worn-out underground pipes. Replacing it will cost around $2.6 million, Sumeriski figures—a big number, for sure, though a fraction of the park’s total $236 million in deferred maintenance.
Other properties in the National Park System face even larger deferred maintenance gaps: Yosemite is staring at a bill high enough to rival El Capitan: $555 million. Glacier’s cost ($180 million) is lower, as is Olympic’s ($126.5 million), while Yellowstone, the first national park, is in the hole for $640 million. Shenandoah ($90 million), Acadia ($85.8 million), and Everglades ($74.7 million) are better off, while the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, D.C., weigh in at a hefty $655 million.
Though less costly, historic sites such as the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Gettysburg National Military Park, and the Selma Interpretive Center at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama are equally important and require constant maintenance and repairs. With budgets shrinking, visits rising, and 419 parks and national historical sites to maintain, the NPS has been performing triage for years.
Sumeriski calls the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act “a great day for the National Park Service,” adding that “we haven’t seen an infusion like this since Mission 66”: the massive federal investment in the parks, about $8 billion in today’s dollars, made between 1957 and 1966, after the national parks had been left to languish during and after World War II. Much of the infrastructure at Great Smoky Mountains—housing, vehicle sheds, maintenance buildings, pumping stations, pipes, parking lots, and trails—dates back to Mission 66 or even earlier.
Unlike parks in the Western U.S. that were carved wholesale from federal lands, the acreage for Great Smoky Mountains National Park was purchased in the 1920s by a tenacious coalition of writers, nature lovers, philanthropists, business leaders, state legislators, and grassroots volunteers, including thousands of schoolchildren in Tennessee who went door to door collecting spare pennies and proudly contributed $1,391.72—about $27,000 in today’s money—to the cause. When the park opened its gates in 1934, these magnificent lands had not been set aside by the government; they’d been fought for, deed by deed, by an army of true believers.
Mission 66 was the result of public outcry over the state of our national parks, and a similar groundswell moved the Great American Outdoors Act across the finish line, says Pew’s Marcia Argust, who directs the parks campaign. It enlisted “elected officials, businesspeople, outfitters, preservationists, veterans, conservationists, engineering and design firms, hotels and restaurants, faith groups, Indigenous people, recreation companies, and sportsmen” for a diverse collection of voices that prompted Republicans and Democrats to join forces and pass the legislation, she says.
Now that the bill has become law, the Department of the Interior is preparing a detailed list of priority projects to submit to key congressional committees.
In the meantime, Sumeriski and his fellow park administrators across the U.S. will be prioritizing their long list of maintenance projects, including the big-ticket expenditures on road repairs and heavy-duty infrastructure. They’ll also be consulting on their to-do list with local volunteer groups, which support the park by raising money for smaller, more manageable maintenance projects that private donors are willing to fund.
One of hundreds of such groups around the country, Friends of the Smokies, was founded in 1993 when Gary Wade and Tom Trotter, boyhood friends from Sevierville, Tennessee, came across a “dangerously dilapidated” fire lookout tower on Mount Cammerer while hiking in the park. They approached the park’s superintendent, Randy Pope, who wanted to rebuild the tower but had no money for it. The two made him an offer: Trotter, an award-winning architect, would draw up plans for a restoration, while Wade, an appeals court judge who would later serve as chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court, would raise the $35,000 to build it.
Wade and a circle of advisers made 151 phone calls—including one to Tennessee’s former governor, Lamar Alexander—and began to educate their neighbors about the maintenance backlog at the national park they all loved. “Most of them were shocked that the park needed help—they thought the federal government took care of everything,” Wade says. “I had to explain that the park was built for a 1934 population but was now getting millions of visitors every year.”
Wade’s friends agreed to chip in what they could, and the Friends of the Smokies was formed. Its first project, the Mount Cammerer fire tower restoration, was built with materials ferried in by a donated helicopter and funds raised during those 151 phone calls.
In the years since, members of the Friends of the Smokies, like similar organizations throughout the U.S., have channeled their passion for the parks into raising money for relatively modest initiatives—trail maintenance, scientific research, historic preservation, habitat restoration, and educational programs—which has allowed their partners in the NPS to spend its limited maintenance dollars on larger “must do” projects. The Friends will continue to support the park, Wade says, by taking on projects that are more appealing to private philanthropists.
“In all of this, we and our partner organizations—ordinary citizens who love the outdoors—are simply following in the footsteps of those early visionaries who assured the preservation and protection of these lands,” says Wade.
His voice is typical of those that Pew’s Argust heard echoing on Capitol Hill over the past few years as deferred maintenance legislation has moved through Congress. She also notes that more than 200 local governments—cities, towns, and counties—passed resolutions urging Congress to provide resources to fix national park sites.
To a small-town mayor or county executive near a national park site, “this act isn’t just a conservation measure,” Argust says. “It’s a jobs bill.”
She explains: “People need their national parks restored and maintained for the economic benefits they bring—jobs, visitor spending, tax revenue. During the current pandemic, these jobs are more important than ever. And implementation of the act will create infrastructure jobs. Members of Congress pick up on this local support—it’s very hard to ignore.”
“It wasn’t easy,” adds Lyda Hill about the effort that culminated in the Great American Outdoors Act, which was driven, start to finish, by Americans’ love for their parks. “But by tackling the maintenance issue together, we’ve solved a problem of national significance.”
Don Belt is a longtime writer and editor for National Geographic who wrote about the maintenance backlog in the national parks in the Winter 2017 issue of Trust.