Mesa Verde National Park has deferred $65.7 million worth of maintenance, according to figures by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Mesa Verde is just one of 400 park units that account for a total of $11.3 billion in needed repairs. Hovenweep National Monument needs $255,000, and Yucca House, an isolated archaeological site that has few improvements, needs $125,000.
Inviting the public to visit public lands involves costs that must be met. Unfortunately, they haven’t been, and the result is a laundry list of urgent needs. The National Park Service budget has not been adequate for all its needs for many years, and there is no reason to believe that will change, especially with federal disaster-response needs growing daily.
And just catching up on deferred maintenance doesn’t move parks forward; it simply prevents them from falling farther behind. Inadequate maintenance has a domino effect, though. Eventually conditions become bad enough to discourage visitation, revenue goes down, and recovery becomes nearly impossible without a large infusion of cash.
Public lands advocates have various ideas about where in the federal budget that cash could be found, from the president’s golf vacations to various projects that, depending on one’s point of view, do not seem necessary.
It’s relatively easy to identify enough savings for one park; finding enough for all is far more challenging. Private funding and public-private partnerships offer welcome assistance but are not a universal solution because of the potential for attached strings.
National parks and monuments must, first and foremost, serve their preservation mission and public, and their funding sources must not undermine those goals. Nor must the Department of the Interior. It’s one thing for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to announce that he’s not altering the majority of the monuments under his review; it would be another entirely to announce that the Trump administration has committed to eliminating the maintenance backlog and adequately funding the parks going forward.
The experiences to be had in each park have intrinsic value. They are visited and loved by many millions of people every year – 331 million recreational visits in 2016, including 583,000 at Mesa Verde – and regional economies are intertwined with the visitation to national parks.
Those are important points to make, because closing a park or monument to save money (or to appease other interests) isn’t nearly as uncomplicated as it might sound to a politician or a president who has little familiarity with the National Park Service.
It also would be politically dishonest. Let’s tackle the problem openly and consider the full range of available solutions for taking care of the public’s most irreplaceable property.