Many of the National Park Service’s deferred maintenance issues could have been avoided with proper preventative attention.
"‘You can pay me now or pay me later,‘ says a 1970s oil-filter commercial, which advised spending on preventative auto care to avoid costly repairs later. The slogan is a good analogy for how the deferred maintenance backlog at America’s national parks has climbed to nearly $12 billion.
The mission of the National Park Service is to preserve and protect those resources that the NPS has stewardship of and preserve [them] for perpetuity (400+ sites nationwide). They should be there forever. ‘Paying now‘ will help achieve that mission and prevent greater costs down the road.
On average, it costs $1 million a mile to rebuild roads but far less than that to seal cracks soon after they form. ‘That’s the ‘pay me later.‘ The longer that you delay [in addressing a problem], the greater the deficiency becomes."
—Tim Harvey, Former National Park Service (NPS) Branch Chief of Asset Management and Division Chief of Park Facility Management
Under Harvey's leadership, the NPS transitioned to a proactive approach in assessing the life cycle of the National Park System’s more than 75,000 assets. In 2006, the agency unveiled an inventory system that tracked the condition of those assets, as well as their required maintenance. This helped parks to identify priority repairs and strategically invest in maintenance before major problems developed.
“Road work accounts for around half of the backlogged repairs in national parks and includes asphalt that is crumbling because the shoulders supporting the edges of the roads were not routinely maintained. That led to asphalt breaking off, first near the edges and then extending farther. Water seeping into cracks in roads also causes problems. Park managers often don’t have the money or available staff to seal those cracks. The issue is more severe in northern climates, where ice can expand and contract multiple times, turning tiny cracks into potholes.”
Although Harvey’s inventory system produced a list of needed maintenance, NPS lacked the funding to carry out the work. The agency’s repair backlog grew to $11.5 billion in 2015 by the time he retired. Harvey, whose 40-year career with NPS included more than seven years as Chief of Maintenance at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, knows that the solution to addressing the parks’ maintenance is funding.
Fortunately, bipartisan legislation pending in the House and the Senate could provide some of that funding: $6.5 billion over five years toward priority maintenance.