COLUMN: Public Lands Infrastructure Priorities in the 115th

At some point in the next year, Congress will consider legislation to address the needs of America’s infrastructure. In the Natural Resources Committee, we will be considering the ways that this infrastructure bill could help federal land management agencies restore access to public lands and support sound management practices.

I recently had the opportunity to chair an oversight hearing of the Natural Resources Federal Lands Subcommittee focused on innovative infrastructure ideas for the National Park Service and Forest Service. The Forest Service has a maintenance backlog of about $6 billion, and the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog is almost $12 billion. With our national debt now over $20 trillion, we will not be able to rely solely on additional appropriations to fill the backlogs or resolve other problems that both the Forest Service and National Park Service face.

The first step in tackling the massive maintenance backlog will be for land management agencies to put more resources towards taking care of what they already own, instead of pushing for more land acquisitions. Over the past ten years, the footprint of the National Park Service has continued to grow, while the maintenance needs in existing parks have been delayed.

During the Natural Resources Committee hearing, I had a chance to ask Mr. Reed Watson, Executive Director of the Property and Environment Research Center, about the importance of allowing National Park and Forest managers to retain the user fees they collect in order to address infrastructure needs, as well as set their own entrance fee schedules.

While giving park managers more flexibility to put user fees towards maintenance projects could be part of the solution, Congress and the Park Service will undoubtedly have to spend several years dedicating more resources towards maintaining and restoring existing park facilities rather than expanding the system.

It will also be critical for Congress to work with land management agencies and local stakeholders to maximize taxpayer dollars and create efficiency within federal processes.

During the hearing I also asked Commissioner Gordon Cruickshank from Valley County, Idaho, about the way his county has worked with the Forest Service to maximize taxpayer dollars on infrastructure projects.

The Forest Service had approached Valley County with $350,000 to replace two bridges. The County entered into an agreement to replace the two bridges utilizing Forest Service design and engineering and the county’s bidding process and county road crews. Commissioner Cruickshank said that by working together, Valley County and the Forest Service were able to replace both of the bridges in the infrastructure plan and three additional bridges on the Payette National Forest. Each of the five bridge projects occurred in salmon and steelhead habitat areas, and the collaboration between the local and federal government led to improved infrastructure and the preservation of sensitive habitat.

Collaboration and innovative partnerships will play an important role in making taxpayer dollars go further for federal land management agencies, but we also need to be serious about maintaining and restoring the infrastructure we already have. I think that many people would be surprised to hear that some of our national treasures, like Yellowstone National Park, have hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance. In order to keep these lands open and accessible to the public, we need to take care of them.