Opinion: Despite booming tourism, parks far behind on maintenance

Park rangers stand on a road in Canyonlands National Park that was washed out by heavy rains and has not been repaired. Photo courtesy of NPS

There are countless iconic views throughout the National Park system, but some of the best known are found in the orange-red canyons and stone arches of southern Utah. Arches National Park and nearby Canyonlands National Park have become favorite destinations for tourists from around the world, many of whom visit both in the same trip.

For park staff, the challenge is to preserve the parks’ natural splendor while also handling record-breaking numbers of visitors.

Although separate parks located roughly 30 miles apart, Arches and Canyonlands share some administrative staff. Along with the Hovenweep and Natural Bridges national monuments, the parks form the Southeast Utah Group and share one NPS superintendent, Kate Cannon.

John Lewis, chief of maintenance for Arches and Canyonlands, tells Western Wire that on busy weekends the line of cars waiting to get in to Arches and Canyonlands can back up to the highway.

As the Wall Street Journal reported in September, Utah has seen a surge of visitors over the past six years after the “Mighty 5” marketing campaign promoted the state’s national parks to national and global audiences. Between 2013 and 2018, visitors to Utah’s five national parks – Zion, Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef are the other three – have increased 68 percent. Some 10.6 million people visited the parks last year and the tourist season now starts earlier and ends later than it did in the past.

This has been a benefit for the economy in Moab and the surrounding area. In Grand County, where Moab is located, employment rates have increased 4.6 percent over the past year.

This fits into a broader trend; jobs in leisure and hospitality increased by 4.6 percent in 2018 while mining jobs shrank by 2.1 percent.

At the same time, the success of the marketing campaign has stressed area infrastructure, which was designed and built for smaller numbers of people and vehicles. At the same time, visitors have given Arches and Canyonlands a boon that few parks have: extra spending money. Lewis’s job is to help use the ticket money these visitors bring with them to ensure that the parks are ready to receive visitors for years to come.

Under the terms of the Federal Land Recreation Enhancement Act of 2017, parks can keep 80 percent of ticket sale revenues to help fund capital improvements, with the remaining 20 percent being passed along to help smaller parks. Of these funds, 55 percent must be spent on deferred maintenance, Lewis explained. This has helped the park handle its maintenance backlog.

“That money we get at the gate is driving where we spend it. We are required to spend 55 percent of it on deferred maintenance before starting any capital improvement projects, which from my perspective is great,” he said. “If we’re collecting these funds they should be used to bring down the deferred maintenance backlog.”

With the funds they take at the gate, NPS is investing “in the future of Arches” says Lewis. This means updating facilities like restrooms and visitor centers, as well as ranger housing and trails, but not constructing all new facilities.

Just because the park is flush with gate revenues doesn’t mean that it isn’t left waiting for federal money. For years, the main road through Arches was aging and undersized, a relic of the late 1950s and a multimillion-dollar deferred maintenance project. Though the park needed the road fixed, because of how roadwork is handled by NPS, it had little control over when the project would be completed.

Roadwork within the parks is contracted to the National Highway System, which regularly sends staff to rate their condition. This information is then put into a database that determines which parks and which projects are most needed and allocates funds accordingly.

In 2017, after years of waiting, the Federal Highway Fund approved funding to fully remove, grind down, and replace the aging roads in Arches National Park. In a single summer, this project removed $17 million of backlogged maintenance from the park’s books.

After a major project like that, Lewis says that it will likely be a while before the parks see another large spurt of federal investment. Thankfully, park visitors will help to cover the costs of other unfinished projects. Despite the completion of the massive project, both parks still have many projects to tackle. After the completion of the roadwork, Canyonlands has $21 million in deferred maintenance, while Arches has $24.4 million.

All that is work needed to keep Utah’s bright blue skies and beautiful silhouettes open for decades of visitors to come.

This is the fourth in a series of four stories profiling national parks published by Western Wire, a news project by the Western Energy Alliance.