Investing in American infrastructure is one of President Donald Trump’s top priorities, and his commitment is clear: to “build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways all across our land.” What’s more, he has promised that “we will do it with American heart, and American hands, and American grit.” It goes without saying that this should command broad, bipartisan support.
As secretary of the interior, I am familiar with the need for a renewed investment in American infrastructure. One of the ways the Department of the Interior plans to tackle its infrastructure needs is through the president’s legislative proposal for a new Public Lands Infrastructure Fund. The Fund — also requested in Interior’s 2020 budget — would dovetail with the Restore our Parks Act pending before Congress to ensure a long-term investment in infrastructure on America’s public lands.
These infrastructure needs at Interior often center on our national parks, which attract more than 300 million visitors every year. Last year’s 318 million visits to our national parks generated an economic impact of $40 billion and supported 329,000 jobs in hotels, restaurants, transportation and recreation. And yet, a lot of the infrastructure in our parks is a half a century old or older. Maintaining roads and bridges, visitor centers, historic buildings, trails and campgrounds, therefore, is a difficult task.
Over the years, aging facilities, growing visitation and limited resources have made that task even more challenging as we strive to repair and update our national park infrastructure for the next century. The National Park Service estimates that we need billions of dollars to repair and replace infrastructure across our park system. That includes work on the more than 5,500 miles of paved roads, 17,000 miles of trails and 24,000 buildings that service national park visitors. Although the Park Service retired more than $600 million in maintenance and repair work in fiscal 2018, several of our most visited parks are still in dire need of repairs, replacements and updates to our infrastructure.
At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, these projects center on repairing crumbling roads, aging buildings and other historic structures — including barns, churches and the Sugarlands Visitor Center, which needs a total reconstruction, costing as much as $25 million. Grand Canyon National Park needs repairs to its freshwater delivery infrastructure, serving the Canyon’s 2,500 residents — from park employees to guests in nearby lodges. Yosemite National Park must improve wastewater, roads, trails, campgrounds, treatment facilities and other structures.
Addressing these issues is essential to ensuring that our parks remain safe and enjoyable for visitors of today and tomorrow. This hinges on our ability to infuse our park system with productive capital investments — including technological improvements — that help prepare our national parks for their next century. At present, the Park Service has embarked on a five-year $75 million initiative at 24 parks to rehabilitate or remove and replace approximately 130 units (single family homes, multiplexes, dorms and mobile homes) in the poorest condition. Highlighted in this effort is Yellowstone National Park, where 64 obsolete trailers, housing over 80 seasonal employees, will be replaced. The recent renovation of Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier National Park also exemplifies how the National Park Service is working across the nation to improve existing structures and, in the process, preserve important elements of America’s heritage.
This should come as no surprise. The truth is, the National Park Service has been able to sustain itself for more than a century because of its employees, network of allies, advisers and, perhaps most of all, partners. Addressing deferred maintenance and needed reconstruction at, and urgent upgrades to, our national parks, landmarks and monuments requires that our department solicit funds from Congress, generate revenue on its own or be creative in forging productive partnerships.
In many parks, these partnerships have proved successful at repairing, replacing and modernizing park infrastructure. In June, I was joined by Vice President Mike Pence at Yellowstone, where the Old Faithful Geyser View Deck project there was completed through a partnership with the Montana Conservation Corps. Similarly, the $21.6 million first phase of Grand Teton National Park’s Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center was funded with an $8 million congressional appropriation and $13.6 million in private-sector gifts.
Most recently, on Sept. 19, we reopened the Washington Monument after being closed for some 1,128 days; it now features a new security screening facility and a state-of-the-art elevator control system. The latter was made possible by a generous donation from David Rubenstein, who also announced in late October that he is donating $10 million for improvements to the exhibits and visitor amenities at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.
National parks and the National Park Service’s programs were built upon partnerships like these, and these shared efforts are examples of their value to stewarding America’s cultural and historical treasures.
We will continue both pursuing much needed infrastructure projects and calling for passage of the Restore Our Parks Act to aid in these efforts. As we look ahead towards the Park Service’s second century, public-private partnerships remain essential to making the visitor experience exceptional and, in the short term, to advancing the president’s vision for a long overdue investment in American infrastructure.
David L. Bernhardt has been interior secretary since April 11, 2019.