Glacier Park maintenance backlog drops

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IN THIS file photo crews are busy milling and grading the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park above Logan Creek last February.

Glacier National Park’s maintenance backlog has been growing for years, along with most other units in the perennially cash-strapped National Park Service. According to an annual report released by the federal agency this week, however, that dollar amount actually dropped in 2016 — to the tune of $31 million.

Those necessary projects that Glacier has been forced to put off or delay — collectively known as a park’s “deferred maintenance” — dropped to $148.2 million in 2016, down from its 2015 peak of $179.8 million.

Nationwide, the National Park System’s maintenance backlog also fell in 2016, from $11.9 billion to $11.3 billion, according to the report.

Still, park spokeswoman Lauren Alley said the annual numbers are merely a snapshot, taken Sept. 30 each year, and don’t necessarily reflect the continual fluctuations of data cleanup, project completions and new maintenance needs added throughout the year.

“There’s a tremendous amount of data refining that’s going on, particularly because this is a new system,” Alley said. She added, “A lot of it is data cleanup, if we had duplicates in the system or really old phases we hadn’t closed out.”

The ongoing rehabilitation of the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, expected to wrap up early next year, helped knock out a substantial chunk of the existing backlog last year.

Alley said the roughly $170 million project, which began in 2006, is currently in its 10th phase, and the park’s deferred-maintenance numbers are periodically updated to reflect completed phases.

The maintenance backlog for paved roads in Glacier totaled $123.5 million in 2015, and dropped to $90.7 million by September 2016, according to the latest report. Other paved roads with outstanding maintenance obligations include Camas, Two Medicine, Many Glacier and Chief Mountain roads.

Alley also noted that while the long-term Sun Road project has a substantial price tag, only a portion of that work addresses those projects classified as “deferred maintenance.”

Most of Glacier’s other categories for deferred maintenance showed a year-to-year rise in the latest report.

Needed repairs to buildings in the park climbed by more than $340,000, to a total of $28 million.

Unfunded trail-work needs rose by nearly $3 million, and now total $11.2 million.

But separate from the more general buildings category are those associated with employee housing, for which deferred maintenance shrank by more than half a million dollars, to $3.5 million. And the park reduced its maintenance burden on campgrounds by more than $300,000, bringing the cost of remaining needs down to $2.6 million.

WITHIN THE broad “deferred maintenance” definition, the subset of “critical” needs grew slightly between the two most recent reports. For items like roofs, foundation, exterior doors, heating and ventilation, Glacier’s deferred-maintenance burden grew from $23.3 million to $25.5 million.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who grew up near Glacier Park and now oversees the department in which the National Park Service is situated, has identified deferred maintenance as one of his top three priorities in his new post.

“Second is to prioritize the estimated $12.5 billion in backlog of maintenance and repair in our national parks,” Zinke told the Senate Natural Resources Committee in his opening remarks during his Jan. 17 confirmation hearing. “The president-elect is committed to a jobs and infrastructure bill, and I am going to need your help in making sure that bill includes shoring up our nation’s treasures.”

But President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, released last month, falls short of fulfilling that pledge, said John Garder, director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Garder said that Trump’s budget recommends a 9 percent decrease for system-wide deferred-maintenance needs from current spending levels — which he said are already “vastly insufficient to start chipping away at the backlog in the robust way that’s needed.”

And while he would like to see a bigger maintenance budget for the parks, Garder said his organization ideally wants Congress to pass the “National Park Service Legacy Act.” Introduced in March, the bipartisan Senate bill would provide annual appropriations to fund maintenance projects over the next 30 years, gradually increasing to a half-billion dollars per year by 2027.

“That would provide the dedicated and robust funding levels that are really needed to get the most important projects done,” Garder said.

Regardless of how the final parks budget shakes out, however, Alley said that Glacier intends to focus its limited funding on continuing to trim the nine-figure backlog.

“It’s certainly a priority, and we’re directing a lot of our funds, a lot of our entrance fees, to deferred maintenance,” she said.

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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