Necessary but not Sufficient: The Great American Outdoors Act

Photo of a brilliant sunset from atop Clingman's Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited National Park in the country with a deferred maintenance backlog of $235 million.
Brilliant sunset from atop Clingman’s Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited National Park in the country with a deferred maintenance backlog of $235 million.

By Jerry Ginsberg

Back in August the Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law. Among its provisions, it provides funding of approximately $1.3 billion per year for five years to address long-delayed maintenance needs of the National Park Service. Clearly, this is a good thing and a reason to rejoice.

That said, it isn’t a perfect bill.

On one hand, the many projects on the National Park Service’s rapidly yellowing list of priorities have been deferred for years already, due to a lack of funds. During these delays further deterioration has occurred, exacerbating the original problems and increasing the cost of mitigation.

On the second hand, the United States has been running budget deficits and piling up the national debt in a fashion that can only be described as profligate and unsustainable. The emergency funding for coronavirus relief has exacerbated an already problematic trend. In simple terms, it won’t be long before we really can’t afford another box of paper clips. OK, maybe it won’t be quite that dire, but it won’t be long before some difficult financial choices will have to be made about what gets funds and what doesn’t.

On the third hand (Yes, Virginia; there really is a third hand.), there exists yet another wrinkle, one that I have not yet heard addressed. Consider this: The newly appropriated funds are to be disbursed over five years.

Due to years of congressional budgetary neglect, the current deferred maintenance needs of the National Park Service now exceed $13 billion. During fiscal 2018 alone, the parks added an additional $313 million to the backlog.

It does not require the skills of a fortuneteller to see that ,while these funds are being doled out, other needs will arise each year and the remaining items in the backlog will continue to fester and decay.

So, in a real sense, this additional funding is a lot like the electric rabbit at the greyhound race track being chased by a long line of eager hounds, unaware that they’ll never run fast enough to catch it.

It is not difficult to project that, by the end of the five-year term covered by the Great American Outdoors Act and assuming that no additional funds are allocated during this period, the maintenance backlog will not disappear and may even increase in scope.

Talk about using a band-aid!

The Great American Outdoors Act was a victory, but it was only one battle. The war remains to be won.

Photo of Jerry GinsbergJerry Ginsberg is an award-winning and widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 62 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.

His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.

More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com or e-mail him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com.