National parks are getting more funding: What it means for visitors (including an extra free day)

The coronavirus pandemic may be keeping Americans apart, but national parks are bringing them together – well, as close as social distancing guidelines will allow.

Now, thanks to a law enacted earlier this month, they’ll begin to see improvements to roads, trails, bridges, campgrounds, visitors centers and restrooms.

The National Park service has a decades-long backlog of repair and maintenance projects across more than 400 sites. Sally Jewell, who served as secretary of the interior during President Barack Obama’s second term, said she saw many of the problems firsthand, including at the Grand Canyon, where the water supply system needs a $104 million overhaul.

“You see ancient pipes exposed above ground,” Jewell said in an interview with USA TODAY. “That is absolutely critical for the whole operation on the South Rim.”

There are smaller examples, Jewell said, such as broken restrooms and elevators. She said the elevators at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico are constantly breaking down, compromising access to the park for people with disabilities.

The National Park Service last year completed a $10.8 million overhaul of the elevator at the Washington Monument, which was damaged in a 2011 earthquake. That included $3 million from a private donor. Jewell said philanthropy supports many national parks projects, but not necessarily the kind of regular upkeep the park system needs.

“It’s easier to raise money for a brand-new facility than it is to upgrade a sewer system,” she said. “Those are the kinds of things you need public money to support.”

The backlog is big, close to $12 billion according to National Park Service estimates. The Great American Outdoors Act won’t fix everything, but it will make a big difference, Jewell said.

Washington lawmakers passed the legislation in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote this summer. President Donald Trump signed it in a White House ceremony on Aug. 4.

“Today we’re making the most significant investment in our parks since the administration of the legendary conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt,” Trump said before signing the Great American Outdoors Act.

“Today, more than 5,500 miles of road, 17,000 miles of trails, and 24,000 buildings are in critical need of repair; they have been for a long time,” Trump continued.

What to know before you go: Visiting a reopened national park during the pandemic

‘There is going to be wear and tear’

Last year, the National Park Service welcomed 327 million visitors, according to the Department of the Interior, with an economic impact of $41 billion and support of 340,000 jobs.

National parks largely shut down in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, but they have gradually reopened over the summer. Their popularity over the years has worn out thousands of miles of roads and trails, bridges, parking areas, visitors centers, campgrounds and restrooms.

The act, approved by the Senate in June and the House of Representatives in July, provides $1.9 billion a year for five years to improve and maintain infrastructure and facilities at national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests and recreation areas.

It also offers another $900 million a year in permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports state and local parks.

Some of the most-visited parks have the biggest needs: Great Smoky Mountains along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Grand Canyon in Arizona, Yellowstone in Wyoming and surrounding states, Yosemite in California, Rocky Mountain in Colorado and the National Mall and Memorial Parks in the nation’s capital.

“You can’t simply protect them by keeping people out,” said Linda Bilmes, who teaches public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and has served on two national parks advisory panels. “There is going to be wear and tear.”

Other examples of the deficiencies the law could fix, according to the National Parks Conservation Association:

  • The Grand Loop and entrance roads at Yellowstone in Wyoming
  • Aging structures at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Georgia, including the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached and where the funeral for civil rights icon John Lewis was held recently
  • Wastewater plant repairs and rehabilitation of roads, trails and campgrounds at Yosemite in California
  • A failing electrical system at Kalaupapa National Historical Park in Hawaii

Years of anemic funding has allowed National Park Service infrastructure and facilities to crumble, according to Bilmes, who co-wrote a book on the subject, “Valuing U.S. National Parks and Programs: America’s Best Investment.”

“This has become more acute as there has been a surge of visitation,” in the past 25 years, she said. “The facilities have deteriorated pretty much across the board.”

An extra free day will benefit all

Bilmes said visitors should be able to see the improvements soon — more than half the backlog is related to roads, bridges and trails, according to the National Park Service. However, other projects might not be as visible, such as water and wastewater infrastructure, which includes functioning water spouts and bathrooms at campgrounds and along hiking trails.

The law also gives park visitors a perk: An extra day, every August, when they won’t have to pay entrance fees.Other remaining free days in 2020 include Aug. 25, the National Park Service Birthday; Sept. 26, National Public Lands Day; and Nov. 11, Veterans Day.

Bilmes said national parks enjoy overwhelming public support and that the projects the law enables will ensure future generations can continue to visit them.

“The public has rediscovered the outdoors,” she said. “There is a groundswell of support for the idea that we should protect our national treasures.”

Visiting a reopened national park after lockdown?  What to know before you go

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