On April 17, I had the honor of testifying in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in Washington, D.C. on the issue of deferred maintenance in Alaska’s national parks and its effect on the visitor experience. As the head of the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA), representing more than 650 members of our state’s tourism industry, I reiterated to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and members of her committee that many Alaskans rely on national parks for their livelihoods.
Approximately 60 percent of the National Park Service’s total acreage is in Alaska and the majority of Alaska’s 2 million visitors each year go to one or more national parks during their visit, generating nearly $1.7 billion in annual economic activity. Tourism is Alaska’s second largest private sector employer, supporting more than 17,000 jobs. ATIA recognizes that large-scale maintenance in our national parks is no easy task, but it becomes all the more difficult with reduced budgets.
Deferred maintenance for public parks nationwide now totals $11.6 billion. The current maintenance backlog in Alaska’s parks, nearly $106 million, is at best an inconvenience and, at its worst, a threat to safety, our local businesses, and our communities.
Our largest park, Denali, has a $54 million maintenance backlog alone, nearly half our entire state’s estimated budget. Major deferrals include aging water and sewer lines; should they fail, it would leave the park’s main entry area without potable water and functioning toilets for huge numbers of visitors that start their journeys at this area. Denali’s park road is also in serious need of annual and deferred maintenance. In 2016, an exacerbated freeze/thaw cycle and unreasonably heavy rains created a disastrous mudslide which closed Denali’s main road during peak visiting season. One ATIA member business reported losing more than $20,000 over the nine-day restricted access period to Denali.
Glacier Bay National Park’s park-owned historic lodge is suffering from more than 30 years of deferred maintenance. Currently, 25 percent of the lodge’s 65 rooms are unavailable due to water damage and other structural issues. Similar stories of deferred maintenance can be found in all of Alaska’s national park properties. The bottom line is: if visitors can’t visit our parks because they are inaccessible or unsafe, they will stop coming.
The Department of Interior recently recommended modest fee increases at 117 national parks with funds directed toward improving the visitor experience by addressing maintenance backlogs. ATIA supports this reasonable approach. Of the estimated $60 million raised, $48 million will stay in the park where the fee was collected and $26 million of that will go specifically to deferred maintenance.
These are not small projects or mild concerns. Deferred maintenance has a direct impact on the safety and future economic development of Alaska’s tourism industry. Park visitors deserve a safe and reliable infrastructure that reflects a standard we should be proud of in our national parks.
• Sarah Leonard is the president and CEO of the Alaska Travel Industry Association.