U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and a bipartisan coalition of Texas representatives introduced the National Park Service Legacy Act to the House earlier this month as part of an effort to boost park maintenance funding.
The measure could provide up to $500 million annually through 2047 by allocating existing, currently unassigned revenues from oil and natural gas royalties that flow to the U.S. Department of the Interior into a restoration fund. The National Park Service (NPS) currently faces an estimated $12 billion in backlogged repairs. In Texas alone, there’s a $147 million need.
San Antonio Missions National Historic Park, which includes missions Concepción, San José, San Juan, and Espada, has almost $9 million worth of maintenance – everything from larger masonry and foundation projects to repainting facilities and maintaining historic acequias.
NPS, the official steward of the park that was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in July 2015, chips away at this backlog with help from Mission Heritage Partners, internal NPS allocations, and donations from visitors and philanthropic entities. But not all national parks are able to forge strong partnerships with nonprofit and/or private entities.
“It’s not consistent across the park system,” Hurd told reporters after a tour of Mission San José on Thursday. “This [bill would] help make it a little bit more consistent but also this is saying, ‘Hey, we need to be directing federal funds to this program as well.’”
San José, the “queen of the missions,” is not technically in Texas’ 23rd Congressional District, which Hurd represents, but Mission Espada is and each mission and park has plenty of needs, he said.
Hurd worked with fellow U.S. representatives Derek Kilmer (D-Washington), Dave Reichert (R-Washington), and Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) who co-introduced the bill. Earlier this year, U.S. senators Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) introduced an identical bill. Hurd called for Texas senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz to join in support.
He doesn’t expect a lot of pushback from his colleagues, but resource allocation is a zero sum game. Congress could fund national parks with that mineral revenue or it could divvy out that money to other initiatives or programs.
“I hope there aren’t that many people who are against national parks,” Hurd said. “But it’s going to always come down to fixed resources – money – and where that money should go. … Congress needs to understand the real need across the National Park Service.”
In 2017, the NPS Legacy Fund could glean approximately $3.7 billion of unassigned revenue from on- and off-shore mineral leases, according to documents Hurd’s office sent the Rivard Report. About $3.5 billion of these leases is assigned to other, specific purposes.
A record 331 million visitors explored its 417 sites in 2016, according to NPS. That’s up from 307 million in 2015, representing a significant uptick in interest in national parks and increased pressure on parks to host more people with limited funding.
“National parks are valuable for so many reasons. They are economic engines for gateway communities, provide recreational opportunities for hundreds of millions of people, and protect our country’s natural and cultural heritage,” said Suzanne Dixon, director of regional operations of the National Parks Conservation Association. But the $147 million backlog of work in national parks in Texas alone and “chronic funding issues” across the country demonstrate that “Congress, frankly, has not done its job.”
Base funding for operations – utilities, salaries, etc. – at national parks represent one-fourteenth of 1% of the federal budget. The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park receives about $3.8 million annually, said Park Superintendent Mardi Arce. It received $1 million for deferred maintenance projects through the agency’s internal grant process that prioritizes projects by type and need.
Even if the park received $8.9 million to clear the entire backlog, Arce said, staff has discovered the need for at least $1 million more since that number was determined in September last year.
“There always will be deferred maintenance,” she said. “That $8.9 million is a point in time. … There’s a complex process where we’re constantly tracking what needs to be done and what’s not getting done.”
But if the City, State, and the Alamo Endowment can raise $400-450 million for the Alamo Master Plan, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said, “this amount should be doable.
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“If we don’t take care of what we got – Guess what? We’ll lose that [World Heritage] designation.”
Dozens of visitors milled around the grounds of Mission San José Thursday afternoon by the time the press conference concluded. The four parks along the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River host about 5.4 million visitors a year.
“This bill proves that the call for Congress to fix our aging parks is being heard,” Marcia Argust, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Restore America’s Parks Project, stated in a news release. “More than 75 municipalities have passed resolutions asking Congress to restore our park infrastructure. And more than 1,800 organizations, businesses, associations, chambers of commerce, and elected officials have signed a letter urging congressional lawmakers to provide dedicated funding to repair the national parks by reducing the size of their deferred maintenance backlog.”