The combination of aging infrastructure and tight budgets has left the National Park Service facing an $11 billion dilemma over how to pay for deferred maintenance costs. That maintenance backlog takes the form of eroded trails, old bathrooms and outdated exhibits at visitor centers.
Locally, Arches National Park had $25.6 million in deferred maintenance costs and Canyonlands National Park faced $40.7 million in deferred maintenance, according to a September 2017 report by NPS. Arches and Canyonlands have a five-year plan to deal with issues that have come up. This year, they will be able to complete several projects that have been on their wish list for some time.
“There are impacts on visitor experience and having a trail that’s not as well maintained as we’d like it to be,” Brendan Hickey, chief of administration for the Southeast Utah Group of National Parks, told The Times-Independent. “There are impacts on experience of having an old toilet instead of a new toilet … generally we prioritize visitor safety so if there are maintenance needs that present a safety risk, we’ll direct our resources there before we direct them elsewhere. Then there are financial impacts also in that sometimes deferring work makes it more expensive than if you would have done it on time as needed.”
John Lewis, chief of maintenance for the Southeast Utah Group of National Parks, said that this fiscal year Arches will repave 2.5 miles of Willow Springs Road and trail crews will work on the Devils Garden primitive loop trail.
“The Delicate Arch trail always needs repairs just based on the amount of people that get on that so we’re repairing sections on that using a new soil cement, which helps harden the surface but doesn’t look like asphalt … That’s really been increasing the life of our trail work on those trails that are really highly used like the Delicate Arch trail,” Lewis said.
Arches will also replace the Balanced Rock toilet.
“If you’re familiar with toilets like I am, that’s an old toilet out there and it does not work very well. I get complaints all the time on the smell of that toilet and there’s nothing you can do, it’s just an old toilet. They’ve really improved the design of vault toilets,” Lewis said.
In Canyonlands, Lewis said, a long-standing drainage issue will be addressed by installing new, larger culverts on the park’s main access road.
Other projects will have to wait until next year, or the year after.
“We have lots of projects so if we can’t get to it in [fiscal year] 2018, then we push it out to 2019. That’s just a matter of the way our funding comes in and our crews and our ability to perform the work,” Lewis said.
There are several big projects that the park plans to complete in the future, but does not have the capacity to complete this year. One of those will be an expansion of parking in the crowded Windows area of Arches and the replacement of old toilets. Over the next couple of years, Canyonlands will work to update Island in the Sky visitor center exhibits. The park will also replace the contact station in the Maze District.
At most recent count, the Southeast Utah Group — Arches, Canyonlands, Hovenweep and Natural Bridges — had $78 million in deferred maintenance costs, according to Lewis. That number will decrease significantly next year, due to the recent completion of a $16 million roadwork project at Arches. The project resurfaced, restored and rehabilitated all paved roads throughout the park in 2017. Arches also expanded some parking lots and widened its entrance station to two lanes.
Currently, the Southeast Utah Group uses fee revenue for the bulk of deferred maintenance costs, Hickey said.
“We direct over half of the fees we collect toward deferred maintenance,” Hickey said.
That could change soon. Congress is considering the National Parks Service Legacy Act, which would use energy royalties to pay for deferred maintenance costs at the national parks, reducing the backlog over the next 30 years.
The bill received support from a variety of organizations, including the National Park Conservation Association.
“NPCA supports this legislation which will dedicate nearly $12 billion over the next 30 years to address the National Park Service’s $11.6 billion deferred maintenance backlog,” the organization stated in a press release. “The funding would come from onshore and offshore mineral royalties that are not otherwise dedicated to other purposes such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Historic Preservation Fund, two programs that NPCA also supports. This legislation would provide park managers the consistent and reliable funding by setting specific amounts of funding every year to plan for and effectively address backlog projects.”
On top of that, the recent national omnibus spending bill designated $255 million for NPS, according to reporting by The Hill. More than half of that will go to deferred maintenance projects.