Summit County commissioners sign letter to aid $12B repair effort for National Parks | SummitDaily.com

Summit County commissioners sign letter to aid $12B repair effort for National Parks

As the home to four national parks, Colorado sees almost 6 million visitors each year to explore these scenic, outdoor marvels, bringing with them an estimated $400 million in spending to the state.

Rocky Mountain National Park, a 415-square-mile area located between Grand Lake and Estes Park and known for its wildlife, dense forests and lakes, is the most popular of them, setting a new record of 4.5 million visits in 2016 as part of the federal agency's centennial celebration. Yet, the fourth most-trafficked park in the country has $63 million in necessary repairs to infrastructure and other key holdings as part of nearly $12 billion deferred maintenance to the U.S. Department of the Interior-run system.

Mesa Verde, the Great Sand Dunes and Black Canyon of the Gunnison, as well as several other well-trekked monuments and historic areas in the state, have their own critical needs, valued at $141 million. As part of the push, more than 100 supporters from Colorado, including Summit County's three commissioners, signed a letter sent to U.S. Congress in early April so funds are assigned to address these crucial deficiencies as soon as possible.

"When we look at the state of Colorado, we had more than 77 million visitors last year, and many came to enjoy our natural resources," said County Commissioner Dan Gibbs. "The national parks are one of the crown jewels of Colorado, in particular Rocky Mountain National Park. Making sure they're managed properly and have adequate resources for future generations is so important."

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., introduced the National Park Service Legacy Act the week before the letter, with more than 1,800 national signatories, from The Pew Charitable Trusts' Restore America's Parks initiative was submitted. Pundits do not have high expectations for the bill, which presently sits in committee. Neither of Colorado's senators, Michael Bennet, a Democrat, nor Cory Gardner, a Republican, have taken up a position on the financial backlog parks bill.

Meanwhile, in March, President Trump proposed a fiscal year 2018 federal budget that would reduce the Interior Department's funding by $1.5 billion. That equates to a 12 percent cut to the department, which also oversees the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Geological Survey, down to $11.6 billion.

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Three weeks after "America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again" was unveiled, Trump donated his first 10 weeks of pay, totaling $78,333, to the National Park Service. That followed a campaign promise he made not to accept his $400,000 annual salary and instead donate it to charity.

Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke, who more than once, including during his confirmation hearings, has stated the parks maintenance backlog is a top priority, gladly accepted the check signed by Trump. He also acknowledged it a drop in the bucket for what will be needed — a similar message voiced by the Sierra Club.

"If Donald Trump is actually interested in helping our parks, he should stop trying to slash their budgets to historically low levels," Michael Brune, Sierra Club's executive director, said in a statement. "This publicity stunt is a sad consolation prize as Trump tries to stifle America's best idea.

"America's parks, and the people and economies they support, need real funding, not a giant fake check," he continued. "Parks are a good investment and we must invest now if we want them to be around for our kids."

From the Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains, to Yosemite and Zion, the country is currently commemorating National Park Week across its 400-plus sites. The occasion, granting free admission from April 15-23 for those that typically charge an entrance fee, is just the start of what's likely to be yet another record-breaking year in terms of visitation nationwide.

The Restore America's Parks initiative views the proposed Legacy Restoration Fund as a good first step for raising awareness and perhaps even covering the $12 billion invoice — $4.8 billion of which are designated high-priority projects — to bring the nation's parks back up to speed. Avoiding a future pileup of costs based on such neglect and chronic underfunding is another policy reform the group desires, by assigning a mix of highway dollars and private-public partnerships toward these mandatory infrastructural overhauls. At the moment, however, it's unclear how or when any of that might happen, including in Colorado.

"Big picture, we have to make sure we maintain these critical assets," said Gibbs, noting his concern over potential budget cuts to the Department of the Interior. "I feel strongly that these parks need to be properly managed for future generations to enjoy — for all Americans, not just Coloradans."

Colorado National Park visitors/spending:

Rocky Mountain: 4.5 million/$299 million

Mesa Verde: 584,000/$60.6 million

Great Sand Dunes: 388,000/$23.7 million

Black Canyon of the Gunnison: 238,000/$14.6 million