Study links air pollution to drop in national park visitors

In this file photo taken Aug. 2, 2015, Nate Powell, an employee with Grand Canyon National Park, collects an entrance fee as traffic is backed up as vehicles arrive at an entrance gate at Grand Canyon National Park, Ariz.

WASHINGTON — Inadequate funding for public lands is hurting the slice of the economy that depends on them, as well as visitors who are confronted by crumbling facilities, a representative of the outdoor recreation industry told the U.S. Senate on Tuesday.

“Federally managed lands and waters host more than one billion visits annually and are essential to outdoor recreation,” Jessica Wahl, executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The Senate committee is searching for ways to provide dedicated funding to restore national parks, monuments and other federal land to a state of good repair.

The federal government estimates the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service together face a deferred maintenance backlog totaling $19.4 billion.

“Sadly, much of the infrastructure that outdoor recreation depends on — including roads, trails, marinas, campgrounds and more — is worn-out or desperately in need of renovation and expansion,” Wahl said in her testimony.

As a result, some workers risk losing their jobs, communities are being hurt financially, and national park land continues to deteriorate, Wahl and other witnesses said.

A Colorado example that was mentioned during the hearing is a project to remove and replant trees that have been killed by spruce beetle on 1,100 acres of fire-prone land. The project was halted indefinitely by poor road conditions in the Rio Grande National Forest.

“In many cases, roads, bridges, wastewater systems and other federal assets are intertwined with the needs of local communities,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

To protect their communities, “the infrastructure they share with their federal neighbor — including the roads used by first responders — have to be well-maintained,” she said.

The Boulder-based Outdoor Industry Association estimates outdoor recreation contributes to about 229,000 jobs and annual revenue of $28 billion for Colorado. Much of the revenue comes from skiing, camping and hiking.

The Senate hearing coincides with opening day of Outdoor Retailer, the outdoor industry trade show in Denver.

It also follows assurances from U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt last week during the Western Governors Association annual meeting in Vail that he agreed national parks need a sustained funding source. He suggested using revenue from activities allowed on public lands to eliminate what he called an “unsustainable” maintenance backlog.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management administers 8.3 million acres of public lands in Colorado and 245 million acres nationwide.

Leading proposals for funding public land maintenance are the Restore Our Parks Act and a bill to require full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Both measures are being considered by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The Restore Our Parks Act would establish a “National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund” to pay for maintenance. The money would come from revenue the government receives from energy development, such as offshore oil wells.

Colorado U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner supports the bill, which the Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved last year. Its sponsors reintroduced it in April after it failed to win a final vote in Congress.

A second bill with broad support from the Colorado delegation to Congress is the Land and Water Conservation Fund Permanent Funding Act. It also was introduced in April.

Congress authorized the first Land and Water Conservation Fund in 1965, but the amount of money it receives requires new approval every year. The new bill, S. 1081, would automatically make available $900 million a year for public lands, without additional need for congressional approval.

The Fund provides matching grants to states and localities to invest in outdoor recreation, wildlife refuges, national forest preservation, drinking water protection and similar projects.

A deputy assistant secretary from the U.S. Department of Interior responded to allegations during the Senate hearing that the Trump administration sometimes overlooks environmental concerns.

“Reducing Interior’s infrastructure deferred maintenance backlog, along with modernization of the facilities, has been a top priority under this administration,” said Scott Cameron, who handles policy issues for the Interior Department.

One proposal in Trump’s fiscal 2020 budget is the Public Lands Infrastructure Fund. It would generate as much as $6.5 billion over five years for deferred maintenance of lands managed by the Interior and Agriculture departments. The money would come from fees imposed on energy development by private industry.

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