National parks hold a special place in many hearts.
Fly fishing, camping, and wildlife, it’s all part of the experience. But keeping the parks pristine while accommodating around 300 million visitors each year can present a challenge.
“We’re trying to keep them up to date, up running, this one we finally had to give up on,” Caleb Waters, a facility manager at Rocky Mountain National Park, said of a bathroom in one of the campgrounds. “They’re just outdated sinks. It’s very difficult to find parts for them.”
Estimates show the National Park Service (NPS) currently has an estimated $21.8 billion in deferred maintenance and repair needs at its national parks.
“Those are not going to be super sexy projects. Doing wastewater treatment plants, redoing plumbing,” Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III, the director of the National Park Service, said.
Sams was recently briefed on some of the projects going on at Rocky Mountain National Park, including upgrades to the Moraine Park Campground. Some infrastructure there has not been upgraded since it was built in the 1960s. He also learned about some fire mitigation and repair efforts, following a few wildfires that had entered the park in previous years.
“For several decades now, we’ve been discussing climate change as an existential threat to our well-being,” Sams said. “We have to figure out ways to plan around that, plan resiliency and adaptation. A great example is what happened at Yellowstone and that massive 500-year flood event. We may see more of those.”
“The national parks are protected areas that are sort of remarkable natural spaces but that also oftentimes means that they’re more vulnerable,” Lauren Gifford, a global climate policy expert and affiliate faculty at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said. “You have increasing amounts of visitors coming to already vulnerable areas that have had significant delays in maintenance, not enough funding for decades. It’s a little bit of a perfect storm.”
Gifford said we don’t want to love these places to death.
“And that’s what's happening in a lot of national parks,” she said. “The longer we defer maintenance of things like restrooms and parking lots, the more that's going to get passed on to individuals.”
“It’s very important that we have this investment both by the Great American Outdoors Act and by the bipartisan infrastructure law, but it's not going to cover everything we need to do,” Sams said.
He said moving forward, building resilient infrastructure that can last for generations is key. This could look like building campsites farther from wetlands, or relocating power lines underground to reduce damage caused by wind, falling branches, or wildfire.
“Using social science, using good general environmental science, having strong engineering, and then being able to apply all of those different types of quantity and quality of information together so we have a resilient infrastructure,” Sams said.