Congressional action will help revive tattered national parks system

Kevin Giles, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Outdoors

In Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, a one-of-a-kind historic lodge sits in pieces in storage after collapsing during a storm in 2014.

Along the St. Croix River National Scenic Riverway on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, restrooms at the busy Osceola boat landing were locked for the 2017 tourist season after a flood destroyed an antiquated septic system.

At Grand Portage National Monument north of Duluth, crews wage an ongoing battle with rotting pickets in a stockade erected years ago to reflect the region's fur trading days.

Infrastructure in the country's national park sites is crumbling at a repair cost now estimated to exceed a staggering $11 billion. The backlog of so-called "deferred maintenance" at Minnesota's five national park sites alone amounted to $21.1 million in 2016, the most recent figures available.

The need is so great that a rare bipartisan effort has emerged in Congress to reverse years of chronic underfunding. City councils in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Stillwater all have endorsed the drive for park repairs.

"We should be providing our parks with the resources they need, with necessary improvements," said Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., one of dozens of U.S. House cosponsors of a bill that would provide $900 million through 2026 and $500 million annually for 20 years after that.

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The hand-me-down look in many of the nation's parks was painfully evident to a record 330 million visitors during the National Park Service's centennial celebration in 2016. Many found closed boat landings, barricaded trails, deteriorating buildings, gouged roads and outdated exhibits.

"At the federal level, we're not investing what we need," said Christina Hausman, executive director of the Voyageurs National Park Association, the park's chief advocacy group. "It can be frustrating to watch our park staff have to work with such limited resources."

In the Twin Cities area, which encompasses the 72-mile Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, a 130-year-old limestone well tower and pump house built above ancient Coldwater Spring is deteriorating along with the reservoir it feeds. The spring, which flows at 144,000 gallons a day, provided water to troops stationed at Fort Snelling.

Part of the problem is that the cost of improving or replacing national park buildings and amenities, some of which date to the Civilian Conservation Corps era before World War II, continues to rise. Infrastructure all over the country, not just in the parks, has outgrown the ability or political will to pay for it. "Americans value these parks," said John Anfinson, superintendent of the Mississippi park unit. "I know there's a real commitment from the Park Service to figure it out."


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