This story was updated April 3, 2018, at 11:59 p.m. with more information.
Sen. Alexander says bill could be 'most important piece of legislation for national parks in decades'
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., hopes to have the National Park Restoration Act approved this year, saying it could wipe out about $7 billion of backlogged maintenance in the National Parks Service over the next decade.
The senator touted the bill in a visit to Chattanooga on Tuesday morning, where he visited the Point Park branch of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, learned local Civil War history and met with local park officials and members of the media.
"This could be the most important piece of legislation for national parks in decades," Alexander said.
Here's a quick look at National Park Service infrastructure across the board:
› More than 5,500 miles of paved roads
› More than 1,700 bridges and tunnels
› More than 17,000 miles of trails
› More than 1,300 campgrounds
› More than 24,000 buildings including more than 500 visitor centers, 425 park lodges and hotel buildings, 3,870 housing units and more than 3,700 bathrooms
› More than 1,000 miles of water pipelines
› More than 1,500 water systems
› More than 1,800 wastewater systems
› More than 500 electrical systems
Source: U.S. Department of Interior
The bill was introduced to Congress in March by a group of bipartisan senators and representatives led by Alexander. It attempts to help with the $11.6 billion backlog of maintenance projects at national parks. It is the only bill addressing deferred maintenance that has the full support of President Donald Trump and his Office of Management and Budget, which has refused to support similar bills due to funding concerns. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has claimed it would be the largest investment in national parks in history.
The fund will use money from energy leases for onshore and offshore federal land to pay for park maintenance and repairs. If approved, 50 percent of energy production revenue from federal lands not already allocated to other purposes will go toward the fund, with the other 50 percent going toward reducing the federal deficit.
"It's an old principal," he said. "You use an environmental burden and turn it into an environmental benefit."
Environmental groups, including the National Parks Conservation Association, applauded Alexander's prolonged work fighting for national parks and for addressing the backlog of maintenance. However, NPCA raised concerns about its funding.
"It relies on energy revenue being at a certain level," association vice president of national affairs Kristen Brengel said. "That fluctuates so much and isn't guaranteed. It could be a lot of money, or it could be no money. It could make a lot of sense sometime in the future if we know oil and gas is going to be at a certain price above what it is now, but there's no certainty in that."
The fund will target high priority repairs, many of which include improvements for crumbling roads and parking lots. In Tennessee, the vast majority of the spending is needed in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. However, there are deferred maintenance projects in the area at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, where Alexander addressed media members Tuesday morning.
"This would certainly be helpful," chief ranger Todd Roeder said. "What we see is it would help the park in general with all aspects of maintenance."
The military park is the biggest in the country and is the largest attraction in the Chattanooga area, bringing in more than 1 million visitors annually, Friends of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park Executive Director Tricia Mims said. The park has more than $23 million in deferred maintenance projects. One-third of the needs at the military park are for roads and parking lots with additional maintenance needed on trails and monuments. One such project, which is scheduled to begin next year, consists of repaving the parking lot at Point Park on Lookout Mountain.
"It's going to be huge for the park here," Mims said. "The $23 million price tag for all the roads, bridges, plaques, monuments and buildings that need fixing, we can really only chip away at it every year so this will allow them to do so much more and really attack the high-priority projects."