ZION NATIONAL PARK — Just two miles from the town of Springdale, the South Campground at Zion National Park is a stunning place to spend the night: Shielded from the desert sun by cottonwood groves, the campsites are scattered about the banks of the Virgin River and framed against the backdrop of Zion’s towering, red rock canyon walls.
But it’s not for everyone. Or, rather, not accessible for everyone. The campground is ripe for an upgrade, says Treacy Stone, the park’s chief of facilities maintenance.
“The campsites are just laid out across the lay of the land so many of them are uneven, many of the are steep graded,” he said. “Many of them have obvious sites that you would not be able to use if you were mobility impaired.”
The park estimates it will cost about $8 million to make the site universally accessible — and that’s only a small fraction of the cost to fix the maintenance work backlog at the park.
Zion’s maintenance woes are part of a nationwide trend. By the latest count, the National Park Service, has accumulated nearly $12 billion of deferred maintenance costs — a term that the park service uses to refer to work that has been “postponed for more than a year due to budget constraints.”
While roughly 1%, or about $220 million, of that backlog is in Utah, it’s not all doom and gloom here — the park’s deferred maintenance costs have fallen by 20% over the past five years across the state. California’s parks carry the bulk of delayed maintenance costs at nearly $1.9 billion, according to park service statistics. Utah, meanwhile, ranks 18th.
With $67.5 million in deferred maintenance, Zion National Park has the most overdue maintenance costs of any national park in the state. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is in second place with roughly $40 million of past-due work in Utah — and another $25 million in Arizona — followed by Bryce Canyon National Park with about $25 million, according to park service statistics.
Stone said the reason why the maintenance figures are so high at Zion is because the park has the most assets to maintain. The bulk of the park’s maintenance costs stem from transportation infrastructure — like roads, tunnels and parking — and buildings. That trend holds true across the National Park System.
But Zion has faced deferred maintenance since its designation because the park inherited a number of historic buildings. While each park sets its own maintenance priorities, in accordance with its establishing legislation, projects that affect public safety tend to get highest priority, Stone said.
The main reason for the backlog is straightforward: there’s not enough money to address all the work that needs to be done. But there could be some relief, as Utah Congressman Rob Bishop is co-sponsoring a bill that would help close the gap.
A Bill To Pay The Bills
Dubbed the “Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act,” the legislation would use royalties — up to $1.3 billion per year — from energy development on federal lands and water to fix instracture on federal lands. About 80% of those revenues would be earmarked for the National Park Service.
The remainder would be divided between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Education. The bill would not divert revenues that have already been obligated for other programs.
Approved by a House Natural Resources subcommittee last month, the bill has bipartisan support from nearly 300 representatives. A companion bill in the Senate has also received bipartisan support.
“For legislation that’s substantive to have that many co-sponsors is pretty darn significant,” said Marcia Argust, director of “Restore America’s Parks,” a Pew Charitable Trust project advocating for this legislation.
Environmental and conservation groups, including the Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association support the bill as well.
Together, the two pieces of legislation aim to augment the three existing funding streams for park service deferred-maintenance projects: the Federal Highway Administration, entrance fees and appropriations from Congress.
A Delicate Balance
At some parks, entrance fees bring in enough revenue to keep deferred maintenance down. Arches National Park in Moab is one example. Arches is part of the Southeast Utah Group, which includes Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, as well as Hovenweep and Natural Bridges National Monuments.
Superintendent Kate Cannon said together the sites brought in almost $8 million in revenue last year through entrance fees, most of which came from Arches. The Southeast Utah Group can keep 80% of that revenue to use on capital improvement and deferred maintenance projects at its sites, thanks to the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA).
Before that law was passed in 2004, parks had to ask Congress to appropriate funding for individual projects, according to Cannon. She said this is when deferred maintenance backlogs skyrocketed. By allowing parks to bypass Congress, she said, the legislation expedited that process.
“With that extra infusion of funds, we are much better able to address current needs and reduce the backlog that built up previously,” she said.
John Lewis, maintenance director for the park service’s Southeast Utah Group, is using $800,000 of that money to fix flooding on the road to Delicate Arch. His crew has been working for over a year to improve drainage under the road by removing soil and invasive species. Once that project is finished, Arches will have one of the smallest deferred maintenance backlogs of all the national parks in Utah.
Arches, like all national parks, must use its congressional appropriation to pay its employees, as entrance fee money can only be used on projects that directly affect visitors. But while visitation at Arches has gone up, the money from Congress has not. Lewis said that makes it hard to hire enough maintenance staff, even though the park has money for maintenance projects.
“I struggle with how are we going to maintain them when we’ve got that curve that doesn’t work out,” he said.
Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt made a change to FLREA this year that allows parks to use entrance fee funds to pay park employees who are working on certain projects, including deferred maintenance.
Critics of the change say it lets Congress off the hook for funding deferred maintenance. But Lewis said it will help popular parks by allowing them to supplement the funding they receive from Congress with entrance fee funds.
“It’s a big improvement,” he said, adding that park managers have long sought this change from the Department of the Interior.
Over at Capitol Reef National Park, Superintendent Sue Fritzke said she’ll be able to put together a larger team with more flexibility in how she can use entrance fee money. And that, she said, is the key to tackling the park’s maintenance backlog, which is just under $9 million.
“That helps us protect these resources, because, ultimately, that is what this agency does,” she said.
Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.
David Fuchs is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southwest Bureau in St. George.