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GOP: Use conservation money to cut parks' maintenance backlog

Jul. 26, 2013 - 02:16PM   |  
By RAJU CHEBIUM   |   Comments

To reduce the National Park Service’s $11.5 billion maintenance backlog, Republican senators on Thursday floated a controversial idea — tapping into a conservation fund to rebuild roads, repair bridges, fix up buildings and finish other projects across the nation.

Park Service Director Jon Jarvis and Democrats on the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee rejected the idea of tapping into the Land and Water Conservation Fund to do maintenance work that’s been put off for years due to chronic funding shortfalls.

Environmentalists say Congress set up the fund in 1965 to finance federal land purchases aimed at protecting and preserving America’s natural resources. Using the money for something else would change the program’s purpose, they say.

Republicans see things differently.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said it makes little sense to keep buying land when the government can’t afford it.

“During these dire economic times, I cannot imagine why purchasing more land is such a priority,” said Murkowski, the committee’s ranking Republican. “It strikes me as counterintuitive to be adding more lands to the maintenance list.”

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the committee’s chairman, said the land-acquisition program can lower long-term maintenance costs. He pointed to Oregon Caves National Monument in Cave Junction, where the park service recently bought land that includes a stream that flows through the cave.

Jarvis said the government can prevent polluted runoff from entering the stream, protecting the cave in the process and avoiding costly restoration and cleaning work down the line.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Congress should tap into the conservation fund to finish the park service’s uncompleted road projects, which account for half of all long-delayed maintenance work.

Oklahoma GOP Sen. Tom Coburn, a frequent critic of federal spending, testified before the committee that the 401-unit National Park Service shouldn’t be allowed to expand unless the maintenance backlog is cleared.

Money from oil and gas lease sales in the outer continental shelf, federal property taxes and boat fuel levies go into the fund. Congress agreed to put as much as $900 million a year in the fund through September 2015, though the actual amount set aside is about $300 million a year.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., rejected the idea of using the money only to meet maintenance needs.

“I certainly am not going to have the attitude that we’re not going to do anything ... until the maintenance backlog is caught up,” she said. “Our generation’s challenge is be good stewards ... for the next generation.”

Wyden endorsed Coburn’s idea of allowing the park service to team up with private groups to create an endowment solely to generate money to clear the maintenance backlog.

“You just basically had me at hello,” quipped Wyden, who also suggested that the park service charge international visitors higher entrance fees than U.S. taxpayers.

The park service needs at least $700 million a year just to prevent adding to the to-do maintenance list. Instead, the agency got $444 million in fiscal 2012, Jarvis testified.

Of that, Congress provided $316 million. The remaining $128 million came from entrance and concessionaire fees and other revenue the park service generated on its own, he testified.

Jarvis said he supports alternative funding proposals like raising the federal gas tax by a penny to maintain park roads and creating an endowment.

But alternate means will go only so far, he said, adding there’s no substitute for increasing the budget.

“Congress charged the National Park Service with protecting these special places in perpetuity, and it is the fundamental responsibility of Congress to provide annual appropriations commensurate with the responsibilities it has given us,” Jarvis said.

Committee members may incorporate some of the alternative funding methods discussed during the hearing into legislation. Some of the ideas could also be debated on the Senate floor in the future.

The $11.5 billion maintenance backlog has been building over many years. Oregon accounted for $113.4 million, according to park service data for fiscal 2012. Crater Lake National Park accounted for $93.9 million of Oregon’s total.

Raju Chebium reports for Gannett Washington Bureau.

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