Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Speech: National Park Restoration Act

Posted on March 7, 2018

I am here on the floor today to introduce the National Park Restoration Act with Senators King, Daines, Heinrich, Capito, Manchin, Gardner, and Tillis.  

This bipartisan proposal will help restore and rebuild our national parks by helping to pay for the $11 billion maintenance backlog in our national parks.

Here’s how it will do this: the legislation will use revenues from energy production on federal lands to provide mandatory funding for the maintenance backlog at our national parks.

This is a well-established conservation principle: taking some of the money created by an environmental burden and using it for an environmental benefit.

The Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, chaired by Laurance Rockefeller, in 1962 recommended the Land and Water Conservation Fund – which is funded by  revenues from oil and gas leasing in the Outer Continental Shelf.

The importance of the Land and Water Conservation Fund was reaffirmed in 1986 by the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors which I chaired.

Since 1964, when Congress first authorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, about $18 billion has been appropriated for important conservation projects across the country.

In 2006, Congress went even further and passed the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006. That legislation provided mandatory funding for the state side Land and Water Conservation Fund from certain new Outer Continental Shelf leases in the Gulf of Mexico. 

That’s what we are talking about today: mandatory funding paid for by revenues from energy production on federal lands.

The significance of the proposal we are introducing today is that, to my knowledge, it has never happened before.

The President, his Office of Management and Budget, and his Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are recommending Congress provide mandatory funding paid for by revenues from energy development on federal lands for the national park maintenance backlog.

This is something that everyone who cares about our national parks – which documentary maker Ken Burns calls, “America’s best idea.” – should welcome and support. 

There are no parks to visit if the roads are impassable and the trails are overgrown. No places to learn if the buildings aren’t safe to enter. Nowhere to sleep if the campgrounds are uninhabitable and the water systems don’t work.

We have been working with Secretary Zinke on this legislation for a long time, and President Trump included a similar proposal in both his infrastructure plan and his fiscal year 2019 budget request. Now we are introducing bipartisan legislation, in the Senate and House of Representatives, that is supported by President Trump and Secretary Zinke.

To tell you why our national parks are worth restoring and rebuilding, I’ll tell you a story.

We have 417 national parks in this country and I grew up camping and hiking in the most visited one of those parks.

I grew up in Maryville, Tennessee, right next to the Smokies and some of my best memories I have are related to the Smokies. 

When I was 15, my dad dropped me off at Newfound Gap on the day after Christmas. I was with two other boys in three feet of snow and my dad said, “I’ll pick you up in Gatlinburg” which was 15 miles away.

And he did, later that afternoon.  

Then, later that same year, we were in Spence Field, and we made an error in judgment. 

About 3 in the morning, I looked over and I thought one of my bunkmates was moving around. But, it turns out it was a bear.

We left breakfast in our packs inside the tent, which is something you should never do and something I’ve never done since.

In this age of iPads and iPhones and Alexa and Netflix – our national parks are more, not less, important. 

They preserve beauty for everyone –rich and poor -- to share. Parents bring children out of their digital diet to feast on a world of natural splendor. We learn our history in a place where history comes alive – not just the history of the world, but the history of East Tennessee, the history of Wyoming, the history of Maine, and the history of Montana. 

To give you a sense of what $11.6 billion in national park maintenance needs means – this backlog is nearly four times what the National Park Service receives in annual appropriations.

For the Smokies alone, between Tennessee and North Carolina, there is a $215 million backlog of projects. 

Each year the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has nearly twice as many visitors as the next most visited national park.

Last year, the park broke its own record by welcoming over 11 million visitors to the park.

These visitors come to enjoy the majestic views the park has to offer, explore its trails, and visit its campgrounds.

Last year, visitors spent nearly 400,000 nights camping in the 9 front country campgrounds and 100 backcountry campsites the park offers.

But, in 2013, the park had to close Look Rock campground and picnic area due to funding shortfalls in replacing the water treatment facilities.

In order to reopen this recreation area for visitors, the park needs $3 million to replace the water treatment facility, repair the road infrastructure, and replace aging picnic tables and campground pads.

The funding provided in the National Park Restoration Act could help reopen this campground for the enjoyment of the over 11 million visitors who visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year.    

The Smokies also supports a vast trail system with almost 850 miles of maintained trails for hikers, backpackers, and visitors to enjoy.

The park’s current deferred maintenance backlog for trails is more than $18.5 million.

In August, I visited the Smokies with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and saw firsthand the work that is needed on the trails.

We hiked the Rainbow Falls Trail where a two-year project is currently underway to rehabilitate the trail.

Crews from Trails Forever – a partnership between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Friends of the Smokies – and the American Conservation Experience are working to build a rock staircase along the trail to reduce erosion and improve visitor safety and enjoyment.

Crews use rigging systems to move large rocks, split them using drills and chisels, and then set them into place to provide long-lasting trail structures for those hoping to see the rainbow formed by mist from the 80-foot waterfall along the trail.

Secretary Zinke and I worked to split and place just one of these rock steps. Volunteer crews will work to rehabilitate over 6 miles of the trail.                                       

In addition to the crews, every Wednesday, volunteers head up the trail to help restore it for future visitors. In 2017, volunteers donated 900 hours of work on the trail. 

The Smokies is full of wonderful volunteers like those working on the Rainbow Falls Trail – over 2,800 volunteers donated over 115,000 hours last year alone.

But we must do more to get funding to our parks to help address these maintenance needs and support the countless volunteers across the country who work to make our parks better places every day.

In the Smokies, around 75% of the maintenance backlog is roads.

Which isn’t surprising, since millions of visitors to the park each year experience it behind the wheel. The park maintains and operates nearly 400 miles of roads, including 6 tunnels and 146 bridges that allow visitors to traverse the park’s mountainous landscape. 

The Smokies is working hard to address these maintenance needs, and later this year they will open 16 miles of the Foothills Parkway.

Driving the Foothills Parkway gives you a spectacular view of the highest mountains in the eastern United States and Tennesseans are excited these new 16 miles of the Foothills Parkway will soon be open to the public.

But due to funding shortfalls, building and repairing this 16 mile stretch of the Foothills Parkway took over 50 years and will be completed nearly 75 years after Congress first authorized the Foothills Parkway.

Completing just a 1.65-mile segment of these 16 miles took nearly 30 years. 

In 1944 Congress authorized the Foothills Parkway but prohibited federal funds from being used to acquire the land. So, the state of Tennessee purchased the land and gave it to the federal government to create a scenic parkway to provide views of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

For 75 years, Tennesseans and visitors have been waiting to enjoy the majestic views of the Foothills Parkway because there hasn’t been sufficient federal funding to address the maintenance needs at our national parks.

And other roadways at the Smokies – including Newfound Gap Road and Clingmans Dome Road – remain on the backlog list.

Clingmans Dome Road takes visitors to Clingmans Dome – the highest point in Tennessee and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome offers panoramic views of the Smoky Mountains.

Additional funding is desperately needed at the Smokies – and all our national parks across the nation – to help repair and rebuild our campgrounds, trails, and roads. 

Restoring these campgrounds, trails, and roads will bring more tourists and jobs to East Tennessee – and to national park communities throughout the U.S.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, the outdoor recreation economy generates 7.6 million in direct jobs and $887 billion in consumer spending.

In Tennessee, the outdoor recreation economy generates 188,000 direct jobs and over $21 billion in consumer spending.

In 2016, the visitors to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park alone spent nearly $950 million in communities surrounding the park. The over 11 million visitors to the park supported nearly 15,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in economic output in these communities.

Restoring our parks not only helps to preserve our land for generations to come but also helps to grow our economy throughout the country.

The National Park Restoration Act will use revenues from energy production on federal lands to help pay for the $11 billion maintenance backlog at our national parks.

The legislation will provide mandatory funding – on top of annual appropriations for the National Park Service – for the priority deferred maintenance needs that support critical infrastructure and visitor services at our national parks. 

The National Park Restoration Fund created by the legislation will receive 50% of revenues from energy production on federal lands over 2018 projections that are not already allocated to other purposes.

The legislation includes revenues from all sources of energy production on federal land – oil, gas, coal, and renewables and alternative energy.

The legislation protects all existing obligations for revenues from energy production on federal lands, including payment to states, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and the Reclamation Fund.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the work that Senators Portman and Warner have done. 

And I know there are many other Senators who care deeply about this issue.

We can all work together in the Energy and Natural Resource Committee, where this bill will be referred.

We will put our heads together and come out with the best possible bill. Something President Trump can continue to support and the Senate and House of Representatives can pass.

 And hopefully we can sign the bill into law – that will allow us to go to work on the maintenance backlog – by the end of the year.   

Theodore Roosevelt once said that nothing short of defending this country in wartime “compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us…”

We must all work together to restore our national treasures so future generations have the same opportunity to enjoy them as we have.