How the federal election could impact public lands


The September 15th edition’s Snapshot focused on the high cost of restoring the Going to the Sun road in Glacier National Park. The Snapshot reports restoration which is now underway will cost $240 million to complete.

I found this price tag for “restoring” only one Glacier NP road curious. I live near Redwood National Park which, like Glacier, gets lots of visitors each year. But the roads at Redwood National Park are in serious disrepair. Big pot holes have appeared which are capable of rendering a vehicle’s suspension suspect with only a single encounter. And at Redwood NP it is not only the roads which are in disrepair. Popular trails are also deteriorating due to several successive years without maintenance.

So I decided to do a little digging.

Glacier NP ranks 38th out of 360 National Park Service “units” managed by the National Park Service in number of visitors per year. The 360 units include national seashores, historic sites, parkways and national monuments in addition to national parks. Glacier had 2,083,329 visitors in 2007 which represented 0.76% of all visitors to “units” managed by the National Park Service. National Parks which had more visitors in 2007 include Grand Teton, Zion, Rocky Mountain, Olympic, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Great Smokey Mountains National Parks. Among these parks Great Smokey had the most visitors in 2007 – a whooping 9,372,253 visitors or 3.4% of total 2007 visits to units managed by the Park Service. Redwood NP ranked 136th with 385,171 visitors in 2007. You can read the entire report on line.

HCN first covered the issue of what should be done about the Going to the Sun road in 1998. Congress got involved in the debate in 2005 when Senator Max Baucus of Montana was able to get an earmark into the federal highway budget for some of the funds needed to repair the road. But that Baucus earmark faced opposition in the House of Representatives.

Baucus apparently won the day. In 2006 the Park Service released an Environmental Impact Statement and made a decision on how to proceed with the road’s “rehabilitation.” The Federal Register announcement of the Final EIS and Record of Decision contained this statement: “To ensure that the Road remains in excellent condition following this rehabilitation effort, the Park is seeking increased funding for operations and maintenance of the Road. In the past, the annual operating budget for Road maintenance has not been adequate to keep up with necessary Road repairs. Sufficient annual funding is required to protect the investment in Road rehabilitation and visitor use improvements.”

Judging from the scenario summarized above the future would appear to be rosy for the Going to the Sun road. It is being “restored” without tapping the National Park Service’s budget beyond the cost of the EIS and management of the “restoration” project. And the Park Service is requesting funds to maintain the road so that the investment of $240 million in taxpayer funds for the road’s “restoration” will not be in jeopardy. So we have a happy ending right?

Well….not so fast.

By the end of 2007, the Park Service was reporting an $8.5 billion maintenance backlog nation-wide. In a comment on the 2008 Park Service budget, Glacier NP officials reported that they had been “unsuccessful in securing funding for cyclic maintenance projects for trails ($248,000), buildings ($300,000), visitor use area maintenance ($161,000) and roads ($240,000).” Glacier officials added that “Lack of funding for these projects will result in an overall net loss of temporary employees in these areas unless funding is secured through other means. Loss of special project positions will impact trail repair work as well as historic preservation, buildings, and campground maintenance activities. Further, there will be no road chip sealing.”

So – unless there is a radical increase in the Park Service’s budget for road maintenance - the Going to the Sun restoration project will be completed to the tune of $240 million only to subsequently deteriorate once again due to lack of sufficient funds to maintain it. The Park Service’s report on the 2008 budget makes a guy wonder whether there will be sufficient workers on hand to remove the “removable guard rails” which are being installed as part of the “restoration” work.

The lack of funds to maintain Going to the Sun road once it is “restored” links this HCN Snapshot to the current election cycle. Candidate Obama has promised to stimulate the economy via public works projects. This would likely include significantly increased funding for current and deferred maintenance needs at our national parks. Candidate McCain, however, favors stimulating the economy by making the Bush tax cuts for the rich permanent while holding down government spending. Under a McCain administration funding current and backlog maintenance needs at the national parks is unlikely. A McCain Administration is likely to be more interested in either privatizing the Going to the Sun road or charging a fee for its use sufficient to pay for maintaining the road. Either way everyday Americans would likely be priced right off the Going to the Sun road while the well healed could use their tax breaks to pay the hefty user fee which would be needed to generate adequate road maintenance funds.

Or – if public outcry or a Democratic Congress (Senator Baucus) prevented a McCain Administration from either privatizing the road or charging a hefty fee for its use – we may again see a situation under which lack of maintenance leads to deterioration requiring future “restoration” through Congressional action. Under the latter scenario the “removable guardrails” which are being installed on the Going to the Sun road might not get removed in the fall. If that happens they would likely be torn off by winter snows and – like the first set of guardrails – deposited on the mountain slopes below.

Under an Obama Administration on the other hand Going to the Sun road and other national park maintenance needs would likely fair better. The removable guardrails might not only be removed but would also likely be reinstalled in the spring!

Some on the political left see little difference between an Obama and McCain presidency. When it comes to foreign policy and bail-outs for investment bankers I tend to agree. But for those who value our national parks and the infrastructure within them there would likely be a huge difference. And because the West has a much higher percentage of public lands compared to other US regions, the differences between a McCain and Obama administration may be more evident in the West than elsewhere.

Differences between a McCain and an Obama Administration are likely to include at least four more years of deterioration in public land roads, trails and buildings compared to a concerted effort to address the $8.5 billion Park Service maintenance backlog. But will these differences become clear when the candidates square off in four upcoming debates? And even if care of the public lands becomes a “campaign issue” will the differences between the two candidates on this score influence the votes of those who value the national parks and other public lands?

These are questions on which readers of GOAT blog may have an opinion. That’s the reason we provide the comment space below. Why not use it?