WASHINGTON (AP) — The National Park Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, but the system faces a multibillion dollar maintenance backlog that officials say is no cause for rejoicing.
Long-delayed projects range from replacing water works at the Grand Canyon to making sure the Jefferson Memorial doesn't sink into the Tidal Basin to improving roads at Yosemite National Park.
The bill for deferred work is nearly $12 billion nationwide — a $440 million increase over last year. About half the total is for road work. The remainder is for buildings, campgrounds, trails and infrastructure such as water systems and wastewater treatment.
Hoping to take advantage of the Park Service's August centennial, President Barack Obama has proposed spending $900 million over three years to reduce the backlog, with another $300 million targeted for restoration projects.
Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis said the annual bill for maintaining America's national parks is nearly twice as much as appropriated by Congress, with expenses growing every year.
Still, Jarvis said he is encouraged that Congress seems to be getting the message after years of complaints.
Lawmakers approved $547 million for maintenance in the current budget year, a $118 million increase over last year. The figure includes spending in the agency' budget and in the five-year transportation law Congress approved in December.
"We have a lot yet to do, but I think everything is moving in the right direction," Jarvis said Friday, adding: "Congress has pitched in."
The Park Service also hopes to expand a Centennial Challenge project that enables the agency to leverage private contributions to complete important projects that improve visitor services in the parks, Jarvis said. Congress provided $15 million for projects this year that will be matched by almost $33 million from more than 90 park partners, Jarvis said.
The centennial project includes $4 million to support the "Every Kid in a Park" program that provides opportunities for children, especially 4th graders, to experience national parks.
Most of the nation's 409 park sites have a piece of the maintenance backlog.
Alcatraz, the former federal prison in California, has crumbling walls and deteriorating windows. Mammoth Cave in Kentucky needs to have dirt trails replaced for safety.
And a historic hotel at Montana's Glacier National Park needs a new fire sprinkler system and other work. "Failure to rehabilitate this building will pose serious health and life safety threats to park visitors and park and concession employees," the Park Service said in a report to Congress detailing its budget requests.
Emily Douce, a lobbyist for the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit advocacy group, said spending increases approved by Congress "will add up to vital improvements for park visitors across the country."
Still, lawmakers can do more, Douce said.
"Congress can ensure our parks are better prepared for another century by dedicating significant funding for the Centennial Challenge program so it can continue to successfully attract outside funds that will help operate and maintain our parks," she said.
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