Dedicated funding needed for maintenance backlog

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Jammer Jennifer Coulter puts the tarp back on top of red bus No. 92 after giving a tour last week from Lake McDonald Lodge. Coulter has been driving reds for three years now.

Montana’s national parks have never been more popular. The surge in park visitation has added millions to our state economy and helped create new employment opportunities for Montanans. However, more tourists visiting our parks have increased the wear and tear on infrastructure, and federal funding for maintenance projects has not kept up with the need, leading to a serious backlog of repairs.

Today, the deferred maintenance projects on national park properties in Montana alone tops $187 million. Nationally the backlog is estimated at $11.9 billion. The big-ticket items include infrastructure that is critical to the basic operation of the parks — roads, trails, bridges, water systems and historic buildings, among other categories.

It’s a problem if this deferred maintenance backlog is not addressed and the experience for visitors deteriorates. We could start to see a drop in visitation numbers. That would spell bad news for Montana’s economy, and especially for the dozens of national park gateway communities across our state.

But there is a solution on the horizon. Federal legislation in the House and Senate (the Restore Our Parks Act and Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, respectively) would address the problem by providing dedicated funding for National Park System deferred maintenance projects. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, have sponsored this legislation and have been helping to shepherd it through Congress this year.

Significantly, both bills use existing revenue — no taxes will be raised. And in the long run, taking on this deferred maintenance problem now will save money as infrastructure projects become more expensive when they are pushed to future years.

As a bonus, addressing the entire backlog will support or create jobs in Montana. By one estimate, conducted by the Cadmus Research Group for The Pew Charitable Trusts, addressing deferred maintenance in national parks would create or support about 1,700 jobs in Montana.

The National Park System assets in Montana — which include Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Fork Union Trading Post National Historic Site, Big Hole National Battlefield, the Nez Perce National Historical Park, and Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site, among others — are all treasures that deserve to be preserved. But for too long they’ve been neglected, and that wear and tear is starting to show.

It’s time for Congress to act. Daines and Gianforte deserve our gratitude for helping lead the charge on this important, bipartisan legislation. Already, nearly half of the members of the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate have co-sponsored the legislation. The Trump administration, too, has indicated support. You can help by urging other members of Congress to sign on, as well.

Sen. Mike Cuffee, R-Eureka

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