Solve Parks Backlog with Oil Boom?

Congress works on a plan to repair infrastructure at national parks, but proposals link energy development to those efforts

Three Carlsbad Caverns National Park visitors had some extra excitement on March 26, when their elevator stranded them 740 feet below ground. A rescue team lowered themselves to the stuck car, harnessed up the visitors, and transferred them to an operational car. A press release on the incident reported that after being trapped for three and a half hours, the visitors returned to the surface "in good spirits."

This was their first elevator rescue operation, according to the National Park Service incident commander, and was caused by worn travel cable. The incident has halted elevator service at the caverns. Visitors have to hike 1.25 miles down and up the equivalent of 75 stories until another set of repairs wraps up in May.

The event is just the latest headline on a backlog of infrastructure repairs for national parks. Nationwide, an estimated $11.6 billion in maintenance is past due, leaving roads potholed and visitors centers built more than 50 years ago in dire need of upgrades. New Mexico's share of that is $123 million, and Carlsbad's elevators account for a third of those funds.

President Donald Trump's infrastructure plan, released alongside his proposed budget in February, mapped out a strategy for addressing those repairs. Federal lawmakers are working on bills that mirror his plan, or tweak it slightly. The leading contenders at least take the funding source he suggested: revenue from energy development on federal lands.

"Since the early days of my confirmation, I've been talking with members of the House and Senate about how we can use energy revenue to rebuild and revitalize our parks and communities," Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said in a press release. "Infrastructure is also about access for all Americans. Not all visitors to our parks have the ability to hike with a 30-pound pack and camp in the wilderness miles away from utilities."

That certainly feels true for anyone who has faced climbing hundreds of feet out of the underground caverns in Carlsbad (where the sexagenarian elevators were out for repairs between November 2015 and May 2016 before the latest failure). But the National Parks Conservation Association cautions that this approach of pairing revenue from energy development on public lands to urgently needed repairs could be used as an argument for accelerating drilling in sensitive areas and potentially damage park resources. They point to an alternative proposal from Senate Democrats, who suggested repealing some of the tax credits passed late last year to funnel $5 billion to these repairs.

P Daniel Smith, deputy director of the National Park Service, testified before a congressional committee that nothing in the legislation modeled after the president's blueprint authorizes new energy development, nor is there a proposal to increase energy production in national parks. The question, he said, was just how to reinvest energy revenue into public lands.

"This bill is not an incentive to develop more energy," he said. "The administration remains very clear that it supports American energy dominance."
That pursuit of "American energy dominance" has led to oil and gas leases encroach on national parks, as well as tools like resource management plans, which allow for local stakeholders to direct development away from sensitive cultural sites and recreation areas, discarded as "burdensome." There's continuing concern that expedited development will damage archaeological, cultural and natural resources.

Testifying before the same committee, Matt Lee-Ashley, senior fellow with Center for American Progress, pointed out that the backlog would be reduced by half if private businesses operating as concessionaires within parks were required to pay to maintain the hotels they operate and if road repairs were handed off to transportation departments. He also took issue with the approach of using money from oil, gas and mining to pay for these repairs, calling that source "dubious" and "speculative," given the whims of the price of oil.

"Our investments in our great outdoors should come from predictable and sustainable funding sources and not undermine the conservation laws that the National Park Service is obligated to protect," he said. "We are not a country that should have to allow mining in national monuments to pay for the bathrooms in our parks."

To localize the example, we could perhaps then say the proposal relies on drilling near Chaco Canyon to spare people the climb out of Carlsbad Caverns. So it's something of a surprise to see Sen. Martin Heinrich, a longtime champion of preservation near Chaco, who wrote Zinke just last fall asking to delay selling oil and gas leases there until the effects of drilling on that region could be more thoroughly examined, among the supporters of the bill that follows the president's blueprint.

Despite repeated inquiries, the senator did not address the question of how he sees balancing these apparently competing interests, and submitted a written statement that only reiterated his support for national parks and this bipartisan solution to funding their repairs. The senator's press secretary repeated Smith's points: that this bill does nothing to change where, when or how energy development occurs. She also pointed to the half-century-old Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses revenue from offshore oil and gas leases. That fund historically has been used to purchase land for public use, including private land inholdings that might otherwise allow for housing or energy development within national park boundaries.

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