March 3, 2020
Over the past 50 years, visitation to public lands has consistently increased, while funding for maintenance has remained stagnant. In 2018, national parks received more than 300 million visitors—roughly 33 million more than in 2009. As park infrastructure has aged and parks have increased in popularity, unmet maintenance projects continue to pile up. Federal agencies, including the National Park Service, lack sufficient funding to meet these needs. Even when money is set aside for maintenance, funds tend to be diverted to other uses.
Annual National Park Visitation (1905 – 2015)
The total maintenance backlog in 2019 was over $19 billion, with the largest share ($12 billion) held by the National Park Service. This backlog on public lands creates environmental damage and negatively impacts the experience of visitors. Effectively addressing the maintenance backlog could enhance the visitor experience by improving infrastructure, such as roads and bathrooms, that have fallen into disrepair. It also would help ensure that federal lands are being appropriately conserved. Despite bipartisan support for national parks, the maintenance backlog continues to grow.
In this policy paper, Jenkins, Dougher, and Garlick begin by examining how the maintenance backlog was created and why it has persisted over time. They then outline several solutions that could be adopted to address the maintenance backlog. Proposed changes include:
- Give park managers more autonomy to set and adjust entry fees based on demand.
- Allocate funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (which raises money from offshore oil and gas development) to maintenance needs in national parks.
- Amend the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act to allow some of the money raised from selling federal lands to be used to address maintenance needs, rather than to acquire new lands.
- Expand the use of private concessionaires on federal public lands.
The reforms offered here provide several options for addressing the growing maintenance backlog on federal lands. Although no single change will completely eliminate the backlog, policymakers can experiment with multiple solutions to address the issues that deferred maintenance creates and prevent them from becoming worse. Reducing the backlog on America’s federal lands will enhance the visitor experience and help ensure that America’s public lands are effectively preserved for future generations to enjoy.