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Colorado congressmen seek national park maintenance funding

Backlog costs reach $16 billion
A portion of the Balcony House site at Mesa Verde National Park. This represents one of the nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites that the National Park Service is charged with preserving and maintaining at Mesa Verde.

Donors who help fund maintenance and restoration of federal park land would get more public recognition under a proposal Tuesday from a Colorado congressman.

Colorado U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn discussed ideas for eliminating a $16 billion backlog of maintenance at national parks and other federal lands during a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, said he supported “a tasteful and reasonable recognition that I think is a legitimate and proper thing, especially if it keeps those contributions coming further.”

The recognition could include signs at park facilities listing the donors’ names, he said.

He also said he would like to see young people and veterans hired under the proposed Conservation Service Corps Act, a bill in Congress to coordinate efforts among federal agencies to restore rundown federal properties. Young adults and veterans would be given a hiring preference.

Lamborn’s suggestions won agreement from P. Daniel Smith, the National Park Service’s deputy director.

“To connect young people and to connect veterans back to these public lands is one of the best things we can do to support the National Park Service,“ Smith said.

However, he cautioned that the National Park Service needs to avoid creating the appearance that federal property could be used for corporate or personal endorsements.

“The donor community understands the limits we have on this,” Smith said.

Lamborn told him, “That recognition is important as long as they’re striking the proper balance.”

The National Park Service estimates its holdings at 500 million acres nationwide worth more than $300 billion.

Of that, nearly 24 million acres, or 36 percent of the state’s land, is located in Colorado.

It includes Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park near Montrose, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve near Mosca, Mesa Verde National Park near Cortez and Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes Park and Grand Lake.

“After years of increased visitation and use, aging facilities and other vital structures are in urgent need of repair,” Smith said.

He showed pictures of crumbling bridges and roads during the hearing to demonstrate the unmet needs.

National Park Service officials want Congress to establish the “Public Lands Infrastructure Fund” listed in the Trump administration’s fiscal 2019 budget. It would funnel revenue from oil, gas and coal mining leases on public property to maintain federal lands.

Democrats said revenue from the fund would be inadequate to pay for all the maintenance needed. Republicans disagree because of the increased rate of federal land leasing being allowed by the Bureau of Land Management.

The Trump administration also wants to raise the entrance fee to national parks to help them pay their bills.

In Colorado, the entrance fees would go up this spring at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Vehicle passes for up to one week would rise from $15 to $20.

The National Park Service estimated Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park’s maintenance backlog at $6.5 million last year.

The National Park Service proposes raising entrance fees at 17 other parks, one of which is Rocky Mountain National Park.

Estes Park Town Administrator Frank Lancaster said he knew about the maintenance backlog at Rocky Mountain National Park but urged caution in raising fees.

“A backlog like this certainly has the potential to affect park visitation, which directly affects Estes Park’s economic health and sustainability,” Lancaster told Colorado Politics. “It is the federal government’s responsibility to adequately support public lands and keep them accessible to all citizens. Drastic fee increases could be unaffordable for many Americans. They aren’t the answer. However, we support reasonable and incremental increases to a park’s entrance fees to support its infrastructure.”

The congressional hearing Tuesday came one day after Colorado U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, asked congressional environmental leaders to support a $5 million appropriation next year for the National Park Foundation, which is the charitable fundraising partner of the National Park Service.

Congress provides matching grants to the National Park Foundation for money it raises through donations to protect national parks.

Tipton joined 29 members of Congress in sending a letter to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. It said, “Our national parks are the crown jewels of our public lands, with more than 330 million visits in 2016 generating more than $18 billion in spending for the economy. They tell important and sometimes difficult stories about American history and serve as places for education, outdoor activities, research, volunteerism, and appreciating the great outdoors.”