Our national parks are showing their age. Cracking roads, impassable trails and crumbling visitor centers are affecting the quality of visitor access and enjoyment. This may mean less money for areas like East Tennessee where local economies rely on revenue from national park tourism. Infrastructure Week, organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce among other institutions, ends Monday and is the perfect time to remind Congress that action is needed to pay down more than $11 billion in deferred maintenance in our National Park system.
According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, full investment in erasing the backlog for our national parks could generate or support an additional 109,000 infrastructure-related jobs, including 2,600 in the Volunteer State. That is why it is imperative that our members of Congress join leaders such as Sen. Lamar Alexander and pass the Restore Our Parks Act.
National parks have a significant impact on the local economy. With nearly 1 million visitors annually, tourism to Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park created $70 million in economic benefits to the local economy and hundreds of private sector jobs in 2017 alone. Plans for a future visitor center at Moccasin Bend National Archeological District, the first and only such designation in the national park system, include estimates of an additional 250,000 people each year coming to our region and exploring more of our beloved national park.
Up the road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park generated more than $1.2 billion in 2017 to the East Tennessee region. Nationwide, park visitors spent more than $18 billion in towns and cities near park sites, generating over 306,000 jobs and providing a total boost of $35 billion to the national economy. To top it off, the Smokies were the most-visited park in the entire system with over 11 million visitors in 2018. Yet with more visitors comes more wear and tear.
Our national parks are long overdue for a makeover. The last significant investment Congress made in the National Park system was over 50 years ago. More than 60 percent of the backlog can be attributed to National Park Service assets that are over 60 years old. That applies both to Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park and to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Members of Congress have taken notice of the issue. Sen. Alexander once again has taken the lead by introducing the Restore Our Parks Act (S. 500). The bill would cut the maintenance backlog by more than half while helping restore our 418 national parks, including the 12 sites in Tennessee.
The House version of the bill has received cosponsors from several members of the Tennessee congressional delegation, including Republican Reps. Phil Roe and Chuck Fleischmann and Democrats Jim Cooper and Steve Cohen.
Here's how the bill would work: Upon passage, it would establish the National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund to reduce the maintenance backlog by investing in national park maintenance through existing revenues the government receives from on and offshore energy development.
At a time where Congress has neared a standstill, what better way to bring both parties together than a coordinated effort to restore our national parks and create over thousands of jobs to boot.
In Chattanooga, we take pride in our outdoors. It's part of what sets us apart. It's time for Congress to come together and to protect the sites that have helped make America great. I call on members of the Tennessee congressional delegation to step out and lead on passing the Restore Our Parks Act.
Tricia Mims is the executive director of National Park Partners, an organization that champions the conservation of Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park.