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Janese and Randy Passow of Minocqua, Wis., check out the view from Point Park Wednesday, March 7, 2018 in Lookout Mountain, Tenn. The two were sight seeing and taking a vacation from the 10 degree weather in their hometown.

This story was updated March 7, 2018, at 11:10 p.m.

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Proposed bill could ease backlog of major maintenance projects at National Parks

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A bill introduced to Congress on Wednesday could help with the years-long backlog of maintenance projects at National Parks, including projects in Tennessee and Georgia.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and a bipartisan group of senators and representatives introduced the National Park Restoration Act, which would use money from energy leases for onshore and offshore federal land to pay for park maintenance and repairs. The bill would create a restoration fund to provide mandatory funding for high-priority projects at National Parks.

"Addressing the maintenance backlog will help attract even more visitors and create more jobs for Tennesseans," according to a statement from Alexander. "We must continue to work together to find solutions to the many challenges facing our public lands, and this legislation takes an important step toward doing that."

The maintenance backlog is nearly four times what the National Park Service receives in annual appropriations, according to a park service overview. A separate park service report shows deferred maintenance increased by $275 million in 2017, reaching $11.6 billion.

Alexander is optimistic that, if approved, the bill could potentially eliminate the backlog of deferred maintenance projects in the next 10 years. Those projects include critical infrastructure and visitor service projects such as restoring and rebuilding roads, buildings, campgrounds, trails and water systems.

Deferred maintenance is defined by the park service as repairs that were not performed as scheduled or as needed and were put off to a future date — usually because of funding shortages.

"Increases in [deferred maintenance] can be attributed to maintenance needs that exceed the service's capacity to address the work, and to inflationary increases in materials and construction costs," according to the report.

There are four additional bills in the 116th Congress also attempting to provide funding for deferred maintenance projects, according to the park service.

Alexander has confidence in the bill he is co-sponsoring.

"The difference is [this bill] might actually become law," Alexander said.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke asked Alexander to sponsor and propose the legislation, Alexander said. It is also the only proposed piece of legislation dealing with the backlog that has the support of President Donald Trump and the Office of Management and Budget, which has refused to support the other bills due to funding concerns.

Under the National Park Restoration Act, the fund would receive 50 percent of energy production revenue from federal lands that is not already allocated to other purposes, with the rest of energy production revenue going to reduce the federal debt.

National park advocates have been calling on Congress to increase funding for years.

"Tennessee Wildlife Federation applauds Sen. Alexander's leadership on this issue," federation CEO Michael Butler wrote in a statement. "We haven't been able to study the language of the bill in depth; however, it looks to be a prudent solution to a great need. National [P]arks in Tennessee and across our country have been delaying basic maintenance for decades because of chronic underfunding."

In Tennessee, deferred maintenance projects totaled more than $282 million in 2017, with the brunt of the funds needed in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In Georgia, the total was $105 million.

Road repairs make up a considerable chunk of the needed repairs, including hundreds of millions of dollars needed to repair the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway that runs from Mississippi to Tennessee.

Locally, the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park has approximately $23 million of backlog in Tennessee and Georgia, according to park superintendent Brad Bennett. Projects include road, facility, trail and monument repairs. They also include riverbank stabilization at Moccasin Bend.

A recently completed deferred maintenance project at the park cleared vegetation blocking the scenic views of Chattanooga at Point Park, more specifically, areas important to the 1863 Battles of Chattanooga. That project was funded by an increase in entrance fees.

"Now, the views are better than they have been in many years," Bennett wrote in an email to the Times Free Press.

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook @ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.

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