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Congress considers more leases of historic buildings in national parks

Author: Tom Ramstack - September 18, 2018 - Updated: October 8, 2018

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Tourists encircle a “kiva” while touring the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park. The Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park in the southwest area of Colorado. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)

WASHINGTON — A congressional committee on Monday discussed possibilities for a new approach to reducing the nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog in national parks that has touched Colorado deeply.

The House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to consider a broad expansion of leasing historic buildings in national parks to private entities like businesses.

Some congressmen say the National Park Service has few alternatives as its infrastructure breaks down while federal funding falls far short of needs. Typically, restoration is needed on bridges, roadways, buildings, plumbing and electrical equipment.

U.S. Rep. Bob Bishop, R-Utah, the committee chairman, said historic building leases could provide new revenue and resolve questions about “how we can get local communities more involved in their public lands.”

Often, managers are brought in from other places to manage national park property with scant input from local residents, he said.

But with local participation, “I think in the future, that will bring a better way of managing the lands,” Bishop said.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. (Mark Harden, Colorado Politics)

Colorado’s national parks, historic sites and monuments need repairs estimated at more than $238 million, according to the National Park Service. They include $84 million at Rocky Mountain National Park, nearly $71 million at Mesa Verde National Park and $27 million at Dinosaur National Monument.

About the only building leases allowed at the Colorado parks now are cabins for overnight visitors.

Nationwide, the National Park Service says its maintenance backlog is nearly four times greater than its annual government appropriation.

The congressional field hearing was held in Hot Springs, Ark., because it is the site of one of the nation’s most successful historic building lease deals.

The main attraction of the tiny Hot Springs National Park is the mineral water of its geothermal spa baths. In 2003, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the national park and its nine bathhouses as one of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.”

A few years later, the National Park Service began partnering with businesses to revive the park. Since then, businesses such as a brewery and an art and cultural center have used the geothermal baths to market their services and to revive the local economy. A 10-room boutique hotel is scheduled to open at one of the bathhouses next year.

Republicans on the Natural Resources Committee want to use the Hot Springs example at parks nationwide.

Colorado has two Republicans on the committee: U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton from Cortez and U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn from Colorado Springs, both Republicans. Neither of them spoke during the hearing Monday.

Tracy Simmons, who oversees National Park Service commercial services in the Midwest, acknowledged in her testimony that historic building leases can raise revenue, but stopped short of endorsing a large expansion of the program.

The Hot Springs National Park leases “highlight successes that have been achieved under the current leasing authority,” Simmons said.

However, “the [National Park Service] has also faced a number of challenges in trying to utilize leases to reuse, rehabilitate and revitalize our aging infrastructure,” she said. “Some of the [Requests for Proposals] that have been issued by parks have received limited responses, or none at all.”

Buildings that might interest private businesses usually are located near cities. Most of them are used for hospitality services.

The National Park Service reports that it currently leases more than 340 buildings. Together, those leases generated nearly $9.4 million in revenue for the agency last year.

Pat McCabe, mayor of Hot Springs, testified to the economic benefits of the leases.

“The business side of downtown Central Avenue has also undergone a renaissance of sorts,” he said.

A leading effort to eliminate the national parks maintenance backlog comes from Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican, who co-sponsored the Restore Our Parks Act in July. The proposed legislation would direct half the unobligated revenue the government receives from onshore and offshore energy development to park restoration. The fund would be capped at $1.3 billion per year for the next five years.

“Fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a critical conservation program that preserves public lands and ensures public access to the outdoors, and addressing the massive parks maintenance backlog, have been my top priorities while serving in the Senate,” Gardner said in a statement.

The bill still is pending in the Senate.

Tom Ramstack

Tom Ramstack