Thursday, October 13, 2016

Needed Repairs Overdue At Our National Parks

Above: Over 20 members from the Olympia, Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett chapters of The Mountaineers volunteered their time for several hours on Mt. Rainier National Park’s Paradise area trails last Saturday. The group used shovels and brooms to reclaim edges of paved trails covered with mud and gravel, took out rebar and rope guidelines along meadow trails, and placed erosion control checks along the newly repaved Skyline Trail.

By Janine Gates

While blizzard-like conditions swirled high on the Muir snowfields at Mt. Rainier National Park, over 20 members of the Olympia, Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett chapters of The Mountaineers worked several hours on trail maintenance at 5,420 feet last Saturday.

Under the direction of National Park Service trail maintenance staff Kevin Watson and Kenny Allen, the group finished the day by placing erosion control rocks and fill at regular intervals, about every four feet, along the steep, newly repaved Skyline Trail.

The rocks, called checks, if angled properly, help water flow in neat rivulets over, not under, the pavement, which would cause unintended erosion and unwanted culverts.

Just as their work was done, the rain started pouring and the checks quickly demonstrated their purpose. The Mountaineers cheered, satisfied that their efforts were effective.

“Burying the checks is one of the most time-consuming projects,” said Allen, who helped supervise the volunteers with good humor. After years of volunteering at projects along the Columbia River Gorge, this was his first season as a National Park Service trail maintenance crew member. 

Allen said more fill will be placed along the trail within a couple of weeks.

Above: Newly installed checks and fall colors on the Skyline Trail above the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center at Paradise, Mt. Rainier National Park.

If only tackling Mt. Rainier National Park’s list of deferred maintenance projects was so easy.

The National Park System celebrated its centennial in 2016 with lots of well-deserved praise and 307 million visits last year, but with increasingly unreliable funding from the U.S. Congress, all eyes are now on the next 100 years.

It would appear that H.R. 3556, the National Park Service Centennial Act introduced last year, is stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives this 114th Session, and with it, hopes of securing funding to finance, preserve, and maintain access and public safety at the park system's 413 sites.

With 10,000 miles of roads, 18,000 miles of trails, 1,500 bridges, and more than 60 tunnels, the National Park System is $12 billion in the hole in deferred maintenance projects, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Deferred maintenance is the cost of maintenance which was not performed for at least a year from when it should have been or was scheduled to be.

Of the $12 billion, nearly six billion is transportation related, with $2.4 billion considered to be critical, high priority repairs for roads, bridges, trails, wastewater treatment and electric systems, and historical buildings, among other assets.

“Our national parks are a proven economic generator - $16 billion. These deferred maintenance projects are more than just a broken park bench,” said Marcia Argust, director, of Restore America’s Park, a dedicated program of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Argust briefed members of the Society for Environmental Journalists on the topic last month in Sacramento.

Above: Half-Dome at Yosemite National Park. Yosemite has $560 million in deferred maintenance projects, with more than $271 million related to access and transportation. According to the National Park Service, for every dollar invested in the NPS, $10 is returned to cities and towns. Park visitors spent an estimated $16.9 billion in gateway communities in 2015, supporting 295,300 jobs and $32 billion in economic activity nationwide.

Based on the park system's 2015 fiscal year numbers which were released in February 2016, Pew is creating 45 deferred maintenance case studies, including one on Washington State’s Mt. Rainier National Park. 

Using the park's numbers and asset categories, Mt. Rainier National Park has nearly $287 million in deferred maintenance costs - $286,949,885 to be exact.

With current boundaries at over 236 million acres, most of Mt. Rainier National Park's costs are, by far, for paved roads, about $194.9 million, followed by buildings, road bridges, electrical systems, trails, parking lots, landscaping, and water and wastewater systems. The park was established in 1899.

The last push to improve our national park system was during the creation of the National Highway system and the Mission 66 project after WWII. Congress gave money for facilities after huge lines for bathrooms and other inadequate assets resulted in public outcry.

Congress has the responsibility to provide safe national parks, and Pew is working to obtain dedicated annual funding through the Highway Trust Fund, $268 million a year, to address the park’s transportation issues. It is a fund reviewed every five years. It is also looking for policy reforms to prevent the backlog from escalating.

“People have expressed concerns about logos added to Mt. Rushmore, but there are more realistic options for private/public partnerships. We’d like to see corporations donate time and technology,” said Argust.

The site in need of the most finances for repairs is the National Mall, which needs an estimated $900 million. The Memorial Bridge in Arlington needs an estimated $250 million.

The worst case scenario is a total loss of access to a national park, monument, or site due to deferred maintenance and public safety issues.

The Atlanta birth home of Martin Luther King, Jr. was closed in August for floorboard and structural issues. The house was built in 1895 and it is unclear when the repairs will be completed.

Above: California’s Kings Canyon National Park visitor area at Grant Grove. The asphalt sidewalks and paths are in such disrepair that staff offer to assist park visitors and their luggage to cabins using golf carts. The total for Sequoia and Kings Canyon deferred maintenance projects is $162 million. 

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