More than $11 billion in maintenance projects at national parks across the country are awaiting completion.
New Mexico’s 15 national parks have about $123 million in total deferred maintenance.
And about a third of that is being spent at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, for its elevator modernization project.
To address the national backlog and provide the parks with a financial boost to finish the work, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich introduced and sponsored the National Park Restoration Act, intending to provide funding to the National Park Service (NPS) for the work.
He estimated the national backlog is four times what NPS receives annually from the U.S. Congress.
“From the ancient wonders in Chaco Culture National Historical Park and caves in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, our national parks in New Mexico offer endless opportunities to explore our nation's natural and historical treasures and fuel our thriving outdoor recreation economy,” Heinrich said in a Wednesday news release announcing the legislation.
“This legislation will address the maintenance backlog and invest in our Park Service infrastructure to ensure our national parks are safe and accessible to the millions of visitors from near and far who pass through their gates each year.”
The act would, if approved, create a National Park Restoration Fund, providing mandatory funding for high-priority infrastructure projects.
It would also provide funding for the projects, in addition to the parks’ annual federal appropriations, and earmark 50 percent of onshore and offshore revenues, not already allotted to other purposes, for the fund.
All federal state appropriations will be paid in full, read the release, before any funding is added to the NPS.
Carlsbad Caverns had an about $44 million backlog last year of incomplete maintenance projects throughout the park.
That’s about 36 percent of the entire state’s backlog, and Carlsbad Caverns Park Superintendent Doug Neighbor said it encompasses the park's biggest projects.
About half of that log is the park’s $20 million elevator modernization plan, an essential ongoing project, Neighbor said, to ensure millions of visitors per year can access the underground caves that made the park famous.
“When the elevators were unavailable to the public, access to the caves was significantly limited for families with children and visitors with limited mobility,” read Heinrich’s release.
“The backlog of infrastructure projects at our national parks can limit access and impair visitor experiences and recreation opportunities, and without additional funding, the backlog could continue to grow.”
The repairs are essential, and the park’s needs are ever-changing, Neighbor said.
“Those are pretty much our biggest projects,” he said. “They’re projects that we’re aware of, and need to get to.”
Projects are deferred, he said, as funding sources are identified, and designs are developed.
New projects are added to the backlog frequently, he said, and the amount of time a project is deferred depends on the scope of the work, and available funding.
“If you build a brand-new building, a year later you have deferred maintenance on it,” Neighbor said. “We’re always evolving, and getting project money and working on prioritizing.”
Funding is allocated through the U.S. Congress, he said, but the NPS does not lobby or ask for funding for specific projects.
To do so would be a violation of federal law.
“They look at our project list and go from there,” Neighbor said of Congress.
Much of the need for maintenance at the park, he said, is due to the aging buildings and infrastructure, some of which, Neighbor said, was installed decades ago.
The steel used in the park’s elevator shaft, and to be replaced in the modernization project, was installed in the 1930.
“There’s a lot of work that’s been done at the park, but there’s still a lot to do,” he said. “A lot of those facilities were built a long time ago.”
Priority for deferred projects is established based on the benefit to the visitors, and necessity to park operations, Neighbor said.
“We’re here for the visitors,” he said. “That’s how we prioritize things. We can’t do it all at once. We look at the condition, and decide from there. We try to be proactive.”
Heinrich was joined in sponsoring the act by a bicameral, bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers: Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), Sen. Steve Daines (R-MO), Sen. Shelley Moore (R-WV), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Rep. Kurt Shrader (D-OR).