Let’s Talk Legislation: It’s Time to Restore Our National Parks

Each year on July 4th, millions of Americans celebrate our great country’s founding. Beneath the backdrop of flashy fireworks, sparklers, and parades, one of America’s greatest treasures – our national parks system – is threatened by a growing deferred maintenance backlog. To ensure that these sacred recreational areas enrich American history and tradition into the future, it is imperative that we take action to restore our parks.


Few things are more American than our national parks. They enshrine American principles of freedom, exploration, and conservation. Our 418 national park sites spread all across the country bring environmental, economic, and social benefits to communities of all kinds, whether rural or urban, conservative or liberal. Protecting our national parks is an incredibly unifying issue, which makes the inability to address the deferred maintenance backlog all the more puzzling and frustrating.  


In the midst of spirited July 4th festivities, Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia – a place that symbolizes the birth of our republic – is in deteriorating condition. Upon overcoming the awe of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, it’s easy to spot the park’s many problems: poor landscaping, closed off exhibits, dysfunctional restrooms, and understaffing.


There is something terribly wrong when our nation’s fourth most visited national park possesses a $51 million maintenance backlog, especially during a time of year when the historic grounds are meant to showcase to the world what the birth of freedom looks like. The declining state of this park reflects poorly on the United States, and all Americans should be angered and feel motivated to fix this problem.


Unfortunately, the Philadelphia park is not the only one plagued by deferred maintenance and dysfunction. This is a nationwide problem, and the collective deferred maintenance backlog for national parks now nears $12 billion. Parks all across the country are in declining condition and the issue threatens visitor experiences, local economies, and the natural environment.


Of the $12 billion in deferred maintenance, half of it involves road and bridge construction projects that enable transportation to and within the parks. The remaining half deals with a wider range of issues such as storm water systems, trail maintenance, and building conditions.


While a bridge repair in one park and a trail clearing in another may not seem like much, this necessary maintenance adds up quickly – both economically and environmentally. In 2018 alone, visitor spending in national parks and surrounding communities contributed $40.1 billion to the economy and supported 329,000 jobs. National parks are the economic lifeline for many communities and provide a vital escape to the outdoors. By failing to address deferred maintenance, our national parks are unable to benefit society at their full potential.


Although a solution to the deferred maintenance backlog is long overdue, it is encouraging to see a growing desire in Congress to take action. Introduced in the House and Senate in February, the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act has attracted widespread bipartisan support and over 300 cosponsors. The legislation would allocate funds from on and offshore energy development – without needing any taxpayer dollars – to address approximately half of the deferred maintenance backlog in the next five years.


Passing the Restore Our Parks Act would represent a step in the right direction, but it would still not be enough to solve this massive problem. Another crucial and necessary step involves indexing national park funding to inflation, something that has not occurred since 2004. This action would help to reduce the current maintenance backlog and ensure that it does not happen again in the future.

National parks must also enjoy greater latitude with regards to how much they charge for entrance fees and what they spend these revenues on. Current restrictions require national parks to seek congressional approval to alter fee rates and they must devote a significant portion of these revenues to matters as specified by the government. It’s time to relegate control back to the national parks on these matters, as they possess more on-the-ground knowledge and know how to best use funds to tackle their deferred maintenance backlogs.  


The longer the issue of deferred maintenance goes unaddressed, the more America as a whole suffers. Our national parks provide many benefits – economic support, recreational opportunities, and species preservation – but they most importantly serve as symbols of America’s culture and natural beauty. Far too much is at stake to allow our national parks to deteriorate, and if the United States wants to remain the shining city upon a hill, Americans must demand that Congress acts to solve this problem.