Federal lands behind in maintenance

Steve Keenan/The Fayette TribuneU.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., gathered with environmental advocates, business owners, National Park Service personnel and others Thursday at Canyon Rim Visitor Center. The event, sponsored by the West Virginia Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy, was held in celebration of the 92-8 Senate's overwhelming approval of the Land and Water Conservation Fund bill. Manchin is the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

According to data from the National Park Service (NPS), nationally in fiscal year 2018, nearly $12 billion of maintenance was deferred to a later date. Across all federal lands, that figure expands to $19.4 billion.

In West Virginia, the NPS backlog as of last September was nearly $62 million — the New River Gorge National River had more than $21 million in deferred maintenance, followed closely by the Appalachian National Scenic Trail at nearly $19 million.

Other regional NPS lands also showed a backlog of maintenance, with the Gauley River National Recreation Area behind nearly $3 million in prescribed maintenance and the Bluestone National Scenic River behind some $60,247.

The deferred maintenance totals are nothing new, with the figures remaining relatively the same going back until FY 2014, the last year shown on the NPS website.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee met to discuss the problem and possible permanent fixes to the ever-present need for funds for public lands.

"Our national parks are one of the country's greatest ideas and it falls on us to make sure that we are laying the groundwork for the next 100 years," Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said in his opening comments.

Manchin, the ranking Democrat on the committee, pointed out that with the $60 million in deferred NPS maintenance, West Virginia, a state of 1.8 million people, has an additional $36 million in deferred maintenance on U.S. Forestry Service property and more than $7 million in deferred maintenance on U.S. Fish and Wildlife property in the state, for a total over $100 million in backlogged federal maintenance.

The West Virginia senator pointed out bills in both houses of Congress that would make a dent in the immediate problem, and it was pointed out by a representative from the Department of Interior that those expenditures were included in President Trump's 2020 budget. But Manchin pushed for a more permanent fix to the funding issue.

"It is clear it cannot be addressed solely through the regular appropriations process," Manchin said. "The longer we drag our feet, the worse it gets."

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Speaking before the committee, representatives from government entities, nonprofits, local communities and the recreation industry shared their opinions.

Scott Cameron with the U.S. Department of Interior said his organization was in control of a portfolio totaling more than $300 billion in assets with 43,000 buildings, 20 percent of the nation's landmass, 100,000 miles of road and with 500 million visitors a year.

"After many years of increased visitation and use, our facilities and vital structures are in urgent need of repair," Cameron said. "Aging infrastructure impacts our ability to serve the public."

Pointing out a study by the National Academy of Sciences, Cameron said the private industry standard is that 2 to 4 percent of an asset's replacement value should be spent annually on maintenance for that asset.

"In contrast, Interior is able to invest less than one-half of 1 percent each year," the Department of Interior representative said.

Dan Pusker, the president and CEO of the Public Lands Alliance, an association of nonprofits interested in public lands access, told the committee that it is impossible to separate the importance of infrastructure from the ability of nonprofits to partner with the government to benefit the public.

Listing three recommendations, Pusker said the federal government needs a "dedicate, reliable, sizable funding source" to reduce maintenance backlog by at least 50 percent; the government needs to incentivize nonprofits to help with maintenance; and the government needs to expand the authority of land management agencies to partner with nonprofits.

"A major investment is needed," Pusker said. "Philanthropy wants to help. Recreation fees will absolutely help and there are ways to improve both, but a major investment is needed."

Jessica Wahl, with the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, an association for outdoor recreation businesses, highlighted that outdoor recreation made up 2.2 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, with $734 billion in economic output. She said $1 billion in the nation's public lands maintenance backlog was in recreational outlets, such as campgrounds and trails.

Wahl's first tip was for the federal government was to recognize high use and revenue generating assets in federal lands while looking at maintenance.

Second, Wahl pointed to the federal recreational trail program which takes a tax from off-road vehicle gas and spends it on the trail, both motorized and unmotorized, maintenance.

The outdoor recreation representative pointed out that while that tax puts in $270 million dollars to federal coffers each year, only $85 million is earmarked for trail maintenance.

Third, Wahl pointed to an increasing partnership with conservation service corps to get maintenance work complete. And finally, the outdoor recreation representative said the government needs to elevate successful models that have worked in the past.

In response, Manchin pointed out efforts at the state level which have provided revenue through fees, while promoting the use of West Virginia State Parks, specifically skeet shooting on state lands.

"I think we're behind the curve because the mentality is, 'Don't worry, we have a printing press here and we'll just make more money,'" Manchin said of the federal lands system.

The senator also agreed with public-private partnerships, adding that he believes that many of his colleagues could get behind a funding avenue which featured increased partnerships.

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Regionally, deferred maintenance was spread across a wide range of federal assets.

For the Bluestone National Scenic River, last fiscal year saw $27,247 in deferred maintenance for trails with the remaining deferred maintenance included in the "other" category.

For the Gauley River National Recreation Area, deferred maintenance for buildings totaled $129,000, deferred maintenance on campgrounds was $56,391, all of which was listed as critical, while trails were behind more than $300,000.

Roads, both paved and unpaved, in the Gauley River National Recreation Area, were more than $1 million in their deferred maintenance with the "other" maintenance category totaling another $1.3 million.

At New River Gorge National River, the region's biggest attraction, deferred maintenance was nearly $6 million behind in buildings; $256,000 behind in housing; $373,000 behind at campgrounds; nearly $2 million behind in trails; more than $100,000 behind in wastewater systems; nearly $70,000 behind in water systems; $2.2 million behind in unpaved roads; nearly $4 million behind in paved roads; and more than $6 million included in the "other" category.

Of the parks' $21 million in deferred maintenance, $4.7 million was listed as critical. 

-- Email: mcombs@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @mattcombsRH

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