Land management agencies within the U.S. Department of Interior saw steep increases in repair backlogs, prompting urgent discussions in Congress about how to approach the upcoming reauthorization of a public lands maintenance fund that expires in 2025.
Agencies defer needed repairs or construction on campgrounds, roads and public lands when they find themselves lacking money to fix them. That’s why Congress in 2020 passed the Great American Outdoors Act: to make multi-year funding available outside of the budget cycle for agencies to tackle large, time-consuming or expensive and overdue improvements to park lands. Still, even with the law in effect, the backlog of work has increased.
“Four years ago, the National Park Service had a total deferred maintenance of nearly $13 billion,” Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Wi, said this week at a hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources. “Since then, that backlog has increased by nearly $10 billion to more than $22 billion.”
Now, the question of money comes up again, both as Interior anticipates a 2024 budget in the coming weeks and as lawmakers consider whether to modify the Great American Outdoors Act to bake in more oversight or statutory requirements to ensure maintenance funding is resulting in quicker resolution of infrastructure problems.
Maintenance backlogs are not new, nor an issue unique to the National Parks. Interior’s inspector general has been reporting on maintenance weaknesses since 1999, and the Department of Defense is also facing $137 billion in deferred maintenance costs to its facilities, per an April report.
As of Tuesday’s House hearing reviewing the funding program, lawmakers said they’re dismayed by the lack of progress despite attention to this issue paid at the end of the Trump administration.
“Instead of thinking we’re more than halfway through, and on pace, to another five-year reauthorization to wipe out the maintenance backlog, we find we’re actually in worse shape than we thought we were in when approved GAOA to begin with,” said Committee Chairman Bruce Westerman, R-AR.
From 2021 to 2023, the legacy fund has provided $4 billion for more than 100 large-scale projects and 270 smaller improvements.
Looming government shutdown
The legacy restoration approved by Congress four years ago was not intended to be sufficient on its own. Agencies cannot use the legacy fund in lieu of discretionary funding for regular facility operations, maintenance and construction.
In November, House Republicans approved their version of the interior-environment appropriations bill, which called for a $436 million cut to the NPS budget. The Senate has yet to pass its version.
Parks advocates and oversight experts interviewed by Federal Times after the hearing also said a government shutdown on Feb. 2 for the Interior could result in further maintenance delays. Interior has proposed another 56 legacy fund projects for this year.
“One of the requirements the law has for agencies is that every year they have to submit a list of projects that they want to fund under that special funding,” said Cardell Johnson, director, of the Government Accountability Office’s natural resources and environment team. “Then they have to wait until the Hill passes appropriations to do that. We’re approaching halfway through the fiscal year, and agencies [haven’t been] able to move on any of their 2024 allocations.”
The delayed timeline also conflicts with optimal seasons for work crews to access the parks, Johnson said. For example, if annual funding doesn’t come until the spring, that encroaches on fire season and increasing visitation by the public.
“For many places where these parks exist, there’s only so much time of the year that you have to get in there and do the maintenance,” he said.
All four Interior agencies eligible for maintenance funds of up to $1.9 billion per year saw their backlogs increase from 2019 to 2022, according to the Government Accountability Office. Overdue work orders included projects to replace broken smoke alarms, patch leaks and restore roofs for NPS employees’ housing or fix up Bureau of Indian Education schools.
“Many Americans, including myself, who expected to see the wide ranging effects of the Great American Outdoors Act had been left disappointed,” said Rep. Tiffany.
Watchdogs who testified at the hearing presented a few reasons for the seemingly backwards direction progress has taken.
For one, NPS identified deferred maintenance differently, meaning decisions about what projects and resources to prioritize were inconsistent. In some cases, that meant maintenance work order estimates were at risk of being under- or overestimated.
For example, across all national parks, Interior’s inspector general estimated 214,000 work orders that were at least three years old but not classified as deferred maintenance, meaning nearly $2.6 billion was not included in the service’s maintenance estimates.
Increases in deferred maintenance at NPS in particular may also be explained by a blanket 35% markup the agency applied for compliance, design, construction management or project management costs. Mark Greenblatt, inspector general, testified that the agency did not offer an adequate justification demonstrating why that was necessary or appropriate.
Recent increases in deferred maintenance may have also resulted from agencies correcting their recordkeeping, testified Johnson.
The Park Service said in its response to reports’ findings that it began implementing a new method for more accurately determining estimates in 2022 and plans to complete that by the end of fiscal 2024.
Johnson argued that despite lingering problems, the legacy restoration fund through the Great American Outdoors Act is “having a positive impact.”
“Prior to Congress establishing the legacy restoration fund in 2020, agencies did not collect complete information,” he testified. “They cited limited funding as the primary reason for why they didn’t dedicated enough resources to this task. The fund has fostered a cultural change toward maintaining better data on deferred maintenance because there’s additional funding available.”
Other factors, including increased visitation during the pandemic to national parks, inflation in construction costs and material shortages have stalled maintenance, agencies said in the reports.
“We had labor shortages. We had agencies that were barely operational because of a pandemic ... We had a change in administration,” said Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M. “It’s important that we give proper due to the fact that [the agency is] doing their best, even if the internal controls need some fixing.”
Implications for the workforce
Risks of a shutdown are also felt by the NPS workforce that’s 15% smaller than it was in 2011, said Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks and a former 40-year parks employee.
“Uncertainty creates morale issues,” he said in an interview. “How long are we gonna be closed? Is it going to be a week? Is it going to be two weeks? Are they going to be paid or not? There’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot of stress associated with that.”
Johnson said if there are significant cuts to the maintenance program or if GAOA is not reupped, agencies may have to scramble for other funding sources or perhaps reduce their workforces if they cannot.
NPS policy holds that parks may use 55% of recreation fees for deferred or preventive maintenance.
According to the agency’s shutdown contingency planned updated this fall, about 68% of its workforce would be furloughed in a shutdown.
The agency did not respond to requests for comment about specific effects on maintenance personnel in time for publication.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.