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.
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 Many found closed boat landings, barricaded trails, deteriorating buildings, gouged roads and outdated exhibits.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.”
And while wear and tear at national park sites can frustrate visitors, safety is also a concern, said Christine Goepfert of the National Parks Conservation Association in St. Paul. “We don’t want them to come to our national parks and see crumbling buildings, inadequate trails and poor boat landings,” she said.
Voyageurs is No. 1
At Voyageurs, which drew more than 240,000 visitors in 2016, dozens of repair projects are waiting for federal funding. At $8.3 million, the park’s maintenance backlog is by far the largest among Minnesota park areas, even after $9 million was spent in 2017 to fix roads.
The to-do list includes repairing numerous historic buildings built in the 1930s, a job complicated by having to boat materials across 218,000 acres of lakes and islands. One unfunded project is the Ingersoll lodge, a rare E.F. Hodgson Co. kit house built in 1928 that’s part of a larger estate on Sand Point Lake. The blown-down lodge and other structures built by Illinois philanthropist William P. Ingersoll need money for their repair and restoration.
“It’s important for us to ensure that we stay ahead of the maintenance needs so people can experience the best the National Park Service has to offer,” Voyageurs Superintendent Bob DeGross said.
At the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, which stretches from Stillwater to the headwaters of the St. Croix and its major tributary, the Namekagon River, money is needed to fix boat landings, campsites and restrooms. The faulty septic system at Osceola Landing has been fixed, but the riverway still has a $1.4 million maintenance backlog.
“People come here to enjoy it. We want them to come here,” said Julie Galonska, superintendent of the St. Croix Riverway. “The idea of continuing to take care of the investments is good economic sense.”
At Grand Portage on the North Shore, the maintenance crew works hard to make repairs with its available money but the grounds and buildings need a $1.3 million face-lift, said Superintendent Craig Hansen. “Addressing all of it is what the priority would be,” he said.
Officials said that Pipestone National Monument in the southwestern corner of the state also needs money to improve its picnic grounds, parking lots, interpretive media and a trail.
Jobs and spending
The proposed restoration fund would create a dedicated stream of funding for park maintenance, removing it from the unpredictability of appropriations cycles. The fund would use revenue that the federal government receives from oil, gas, coal and other mineral royalties that aren’t already subscribed, providing $50 million a year to start and rising until it reaches $500 million annually in 2027 — a level it would maintain through 2047. Eighty percent of the fund would be used to repair and rehabilitate structures, trails and other visitor-oriented assets, and 20 percent would go to roads and bridges.
Paulsen, who once had a summer job at Yellowstone National Park, said he detects support in Congress for the bill. A big selling point, he said, is the economic benefit of having “top notch” parks.
“The national parks are very unique crown jewels,” he said. “We hear that from visitors that come from other countries. It’s clear the parks are getting a lot of wear.”
One of the big engines behind the proposed restoration fund is the Pew Charitable Trusts, which started the “Restore America’s Parks” campaign to find a policy solution to persistent underfunding. Pew research shows that the 1 million people who visited Minnesota’s national parks in 2016 spent $56.2 million and supported 897 jobs.
“Parks are a huge economic driver for local communities and states in general,” said Marcia Argust, the project’s national director. Tackling the maintenance backlog, she said, would employ an additional 110,000 people nationwide. “Taking care of the parks’ maintenance issues is about preserving our history, preserving access and recreation opportunities, and preserving economic activities for local communities.”