BISMARCK — Billions of dollars in deferred maintenance of National Park Service roads and facilities might get a boost from revitalized legislation in Congress that North Dakota's U.S. senators hope will become law.
The National Park Service ties the backlog largely to limited resources for addressing aging infrastructure while visitation at parks has reached records, including in North Dakota.
U.S. Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, both R-N.D., are among 42 co-sponsors of the Restore Our Parks Act. The bill would distribute up to $1.3 billion every year to reduce the deferred maintenance. That money would be derived from 50% of energy development revenue off federal lands. The bill would have to be renewed after five years.
Hoeven said supporters of the bill might try to garner more support by combining it with so-called "lands bills," or state-specific legislation for public lands, such as two bills passed in 2018 allowing homeowners on Patterson Lake near Dickinson and the Jamestown Reservoir to purchase their lots from the federal government.
Hoeven and Cramer said they see a better chance to pass the bill than with similar legislation that failed in 2018, given the new bill's bipartisan support throughout the Senate and from the White House and conservation groups.
"I'm hopeful this year with the idea that we could get it over to the House and then they get it passed," Hoeven said.
"This is the time to get it done, I think," Cramer said.
The bill is in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, chaired by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
It's hard to say how the bill will progress. There's a similar House bill, too, for which U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., is one of 318 co-sponsors.
“Legislation like the 'Restore Our Parks Act' is the type of creative solution that can help relieve our deferred maintenance backlog and help us fund necessary upgrades and repairs so that more Americans can have a safe and memorable experience enjoying recreational opportunities while visiting our country’s national treasures," Interior senior adviser/spokesperson Carol Danko said.
About $50 million of the $12 billion nationwide backlog of deferred maintenance is in North Dakota. As of September 2018, Theodore Roosevelt National Park had about $46.8 million, while the smaller Fort Union Trading Post near Williston and Knife River Indian Villages carried about $2.3 million and $1.3 million, respectively.
Cramer said deferred maintenance has a "cascading effect."
"Whether it's a pothole or a leak or shingles on a rooftop, anything, it only gets worse year to year," he said.
Visitation has surged at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in recent years. The park saw about 750,000 visitors in 2018, up from 580,000 in 2015, or 29%.
Part of that boost could be from increased media attention. The New York Times ranked the park as No. 5 on its "52 Places to Go in 2016" feature. The park's North Unit is near Watford City, where the population has ballooned in recent years due to the Bakken oil boom.
"A major component" of the park's backlog is roads, according to Eileen Andes, chief of interpretation and public affairs.
Andes has said the park's road maintenance is a "constant issue" given the erosive geology of the Badlands. Aging structures are another concern.
A number of projects are underway to address needed work, funded by park entrance fees.
Andes said the park is removing outdated comfort stations in its two campgrounds to modernize the facilities and improve accessibility.
The stone shelter at River Bend Overlook in the park's North Unit had its shingles replaced and its masonry repaired.
The shelter offers panoramic views of the colorful Little Missouri Valley and is one of the most photographed structures in North Dakota, Andes said.
Stabilization and rehabilitation of buildings at the South Unit's Peaceful Valley Ranch are set to begin in spring 2020. The historic dude ranch once was headquarters for Depression-era federal work programs such as the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps.
The ranch dates to 1885 and also once was headquarters for the park and home to a horseback riding outfit.
Two campsites in the North Unit's Juniper Campground also are closed after eroding due to flooding of the Little Missouri River. Andes said fees could also fund their replacement.
"Maintenance of park facilities and infrastructure is going on constantly, and we have large and small projects," she said.
In a slump
U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt visited the park with Hoeven, Cramer and Gov. Doug Burgum in early October. They and Park Superintendent Wendy Ross showed him a slumped section of roadway along the park's 36-mile scenic loop drive. Water eroding under the roadway led to the slump in mid-May.
The slumped section, near the colorful Badlands Overlook, led to the closure of 6 miles of the scenic drive.
"That isn't really deferred maintenance. That's a failure of the road. That's a failure of the road that means that we can't use it," Hoeven said.
Bernhardt called the slumped roadway, where the ground is still moving, "obviously a project in immediate need," but he didn't offer a time frame to fix it. Hoeven hopes the roadway will be repaired next year and was glad the Trump Cabinet member could visit the site.
"It's always good to get these guys out here to see it and make your case," he said.
Ross also was pleased Bernhardt could visit the park to see and hear about its needs. She previously said the park would be in touch with Interior about options for fixing the road, which will be assessed for repairs to come through the Federal Highway Administration.
Cramer pointed out two bison herds and a Badlands vista the group saw while driving the closed section -- scenery the public can't experience and enjoy.
"I think it's a pretty good example of how you rob the public of really what they're paying for when you have transportation problems like that," he said.