Knoxville News Sentinel: Alexander, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Zinke promote act to fund park maintenance

Posted on April 28, 2018

Knoxville News Sentinel: Alexander, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Zinke promote act to fund park maintenance

By Tanner Hancock 

April 28, 2018

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke joined Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Saturday to promote The National Park Restoration Act, legislation addressing the billions in deferred maintenance to national park infrastructure and visitor services nationwide. 

Speaking from the grounds of the closed Look Rock Campground, the pair drew attention to the National Park Service's $11.6 billion in deferred maintenance needs, including $215 million in deferred maintenance from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

"What we have here is an example of not prioritizing what we love," said Zinke of national park funding. In the 2017 fiscal year, NPS received only $2.9 million in annual appropriations, well short of the nearly $12 billion sum needed to address total deferred maintenance needs. 

The bill, which has support from several key Democratic lawmakers as well as the Trump administration, would provide mandatory funding for NPS maintenance needs by allocating 50 percent of onshore and offshore revenues from energy production on federal lands. 

"President Trump is a builder. He loves to build, and this country loves the parks. It's a good match," said Zinke of the president's support for the funding measure. "Some things when you bring up to the president, he lights up, and anything that has to do with building, it grabs his attention and he enjoys that." 

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, the fund could provide up to $18 billion in park funding over the next 10 years, though estimates from the Office of Management and Budget predict numbers closer to $7 billion over that time period. 

"If it were to be that successful over 10 years, I would think Congress would be very happy with the result and would want to extend the program," said Alexander, saying he expects the bill to pass in Congress by the end of the year.

Noting environmental concerns stemming from the revenue related to oil, coal and gas, Alexander pointed to his time as chairman for President Ronald Reagan's Commission on Americans Outdoors, which endorsed a proposal to fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund from federal oil and gas leases on the Outer Continental Shelf. 

"That principle of using an environmental burden and turning it into an environmental benefit is well established, so I think most conservationists know very well that it's sound policy," said Alexander. 

That funding isn't guaranteed, however. According to the bill, only if federal energy revenues exceed $7.8 billion for the 2018 fiscal year will national parks begin receiving money for much needed maintenance. Between 2015 and 2017, federal energy revenues averaged only $6.4 million annually, according to data from the U.S. Department of the Interior. 

The pair also announced their intention to appropriate $2 million in funds from the U.S. Department of the Interior in order to reopen the Smoky's Look Rock campground. Located near the terminus of Foothills Parkway West, Look Rock Campground was closed in 2013 due to the park's lack of funding to fix the site's broken pipe system and other amenities.  

"I'll kick the cans and look underneath the rocks and find the appropriate funding to the prioritize this (Look Rock Campground)," said Zinke. 

Clay Jordan, Deputy Superintendent for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said he was unable to provide a timetable as to when the park would reopen to the public. 

Of the $215 million in deferred maintenance needs to the Smoky Mountains National Park, more than 75 percent of necessary repairs are associated with the park's road system. That includes 384 miles of roads, including the completion of the 16 mile section of the Foothills Parkway, construction of which was originally approved by Congress in 1944.