As his conservation swan song, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has staunchly pushed for legislation to address the more than $12 billion in deferred maintenance at national parks in what will likely be his final major piece of legislation to protect the outdoors before he retires from public office in 2020.
The issue is personal for Alexander. The Restore Our Parks Act would address the $235 million in needed maintenance projects at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where he grew up visiting as a child living in nearby Maryville, Tennessee. The park has more than twice the annual number of visitors as Yellowstone National Park but gets less than half the funding.
The act would fund deferred maintenance projects nationwide, including at the local Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. The senator's goal is to see the act, which he introduced, pass committee before the end of the year, so it can reach the Senate floor for a vote.
"The park looms large in many of my childhood memories," Alexander said in a statement. "The Restore Our Parks Act would be the biggest help to the National Park Service in 50 years."
The act would establish a National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund. It would use 50% of all revenue not otherwise allocated from existing on and offshore energy development to reduce the parks' maintenance backlog. That money, not to exceed $1.3 billion each year, would be deposited into the general treasury for five years.
The act comes on the heels of the National Park Restoration Act and the National Park Service Legacy Act. Both bills were proposed separately last year by Alexander and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., respectively, but were trying to accomplish the same thing. The two joined forces and introduced the Restore Our Parks Act in 2019. It passed committee in the House earlier this year, where it has more than 330 co-sponsors. However, the bill has so far been slow-moving in the Senate committee due to the large funding amount included in it, according to Alexander's office.
Currently, deferred maintenance is handled as part of the Department of Interior's Environmental and Related Agencies Act, which is a spending bill for the department. Alexander has worked to increase annual funding for deferred maintenance in that act, as well, but says it isn't nearly enough to address the more than $12 billion in deferred maintenance nationwide.
The Restore Our Parks Act is supported by more than 100 groups including The Pew Charitable Trusts, American Hiking Society and REI.
"Our National Park System serves as the crown jewel of our national conservation legacy," according to a statement from the National Association of Counties, which also supports the bill. "We must ensure that future generations can see and appreciate our rich natural history."
Area outdoors groups have long called Alexander a champion of conservation in Tennessee. He was once named the state's conservationist of the year and now has a state park named in his honor.
The former Tennessee governor turned senator has introduced and sponsored 60 pieces of legislation dealing with parks and conservation since taking office in Congress in 2003 — including a dozen such bills this year.
"What we have today in terms of quality and the abundance of our natural recources wasn't by accident. It was by planning by people for a long time," Tennessee Wildlife Federation CEO Mike Butler said. "It goes back to [former] Senator [Howard] Baker, and even before him, we've had a line of elected officials over time who have seen the value and importance of Tennessee's natural recources. When [Alexander] retires, we'll need to find the next person to stand up and take his place."