Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke gets firsthand look at why Zion and other national parks need billions more for upkeep

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, left, listens to Zion National Park visitor Vince Boling of Graton, Calif., during a tour of the park's dilapidated South Campground on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. Zinke was in Utah promoting bipartisan legislation to address the National Park Service's $12 billion maintenance backlog.

Zion National Park • At the mouth of Zion Canyon are two campgrounds. They sit right next to each other but are worlds apart when it comes to what they offer national park visitors.

Members of the Boling family got a taste of both this week. Arriving without a reservation at the height of a busy fall season, they took advantage of cancellations to stay at the Watchman Campground one night.

Named for the geological formation towering across the Virgin River, the Watchman is newer and ordered, its bathrooms up to contemporary standards. “It felt safe, especially for the little one,” Vince Boling said, referring to his infant daughter, Elianna, strapped to his back.

“Then we moved here [to the South Campground] and we were surprised by the noticeable difference in the upkeep and the maintenance. The bathrooms are super-nice over there [at Watchman], you can wash your dishes,” Boling said. “Here you have to fill up your pot here, carry it to your campsite, wash your dishes and bring your gray water back here, and dump it in a hole in the bathroom floor.”

Vince and Theary Boling, of Sonoma County, Calif., shared their impressions Monday with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who happened to be touring the neighboring South Campground with an entourage of dignitaries and reporters, examining what happens when worn-out facilities are not maintained. The South Campground, slated for an $8 million upgrade, is devoid of curbing, crisscrossed with drainage ditches, and the restroom fixtures date to the Eisenhower administration.

Interior officials and Utah’s congressional delegation used Zion, the state’s crown jewel, as a backdrop Monday to press the need to fix aging national park infrastructure and do it without adding to federal deficit. New legislation — sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and endorsed by dozens of lawmakers of both political persuasions — would invest $6.5 billion over five years in fixing park infrastructure nationwide.

“It’s not just what you see with the roads. It’s what you don’t see. It’s the water, the sewer. We can do a lot better,” Zinke said. “There are few bills in [Congress] where you have the ranking member and the chairman [of the Natural Resources Committee] getting together and pushing politics aside and rising to what America should be, an America that values its public lands. The national parks are America’s best idea. Now it’s time to rise to the occasion of an American issue.”

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, left, and Rep. Rob Bishop toured Zion National Park's campgrounds on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. Zinke was in Utah promoting bipartisan legislation sponsored by Bishop addressing the National Park Service's $12 billion maintenance backlog.

The Bishop-Grijalva bill aims to take a $1.3 billion bite each year from the parks’ $12 billion maintenance backlog, tapping revenue associated with energy development.

“The experience should be five star,” Zinke said. “It should be one where people come to our parks, enjoy the beauty, the majesty of our greatest holdings. It’s mandatory spending, but it’s fiscally responsible because if you don’t get to the infrastructure today, it’s a liability to the future. It’s going to cost more tomorrow.”

The parks help anchor outdoor recreation, which supports $887 billion in economic activity, he added.

“There has been a cultural shift, and there will be more demands on our parks,” said Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, who has sponsored a bill that would establish a sixth national park in the Beehive State covering the Escalante canyons. “The last outcome we want to see is where they cap the number of people who can visit the parks. By making these investments, we can accommodate more people, and we won’t have to have reservations.”

Arches National Park has proposed a reservation system as part a traffic-management plan, while Zion is considering such an idea.

Across the National Park Service’s 417 units, which saw 331 million visits last year, deferred maintenance has become a crisis. Utah’s share of the backlog is $292 million, ranking it 10th among the states, well behind neighboring Wyoming and Arizona. Zion’s share is $65 million and growing.

“It gets worse every year,” Bishop said. “This bill is using money generated from public lands to do our stewardship responsibility providing for public lands."

The measure would tap $1.3 billion a year from energy revenue streaming in from public lands, whether from oil, gas, wind or solar. Parks account for a big majority of the maintenance backlog among all federal land agencies. The Bureau of Land Management, which administers far more territory, accounts for just $2 billion, in contrast with the parks’ $12 billion.

According to a 2017 report by the Congressional Research Service, paved roads accounted for about half the parks’ backlog. Other big items included buildings ($2 billion); trails ($489 million); water systems ($275 million); campgrounds ($74 million).

“There is an expectation that the trail system is maintained,” Zinke said. “It’s hard to make a new trail when we haven’t maintained a trail we have. This bill is incredibly important to do just that.”

Zinke noted that about a third of the roads under the park service’s care rest outside parks, built in an era when motorists’ expectations were far lower. Many wastewater systems no longer meet state standards. Projects geared toward public safety and environmental health will receive priority under the bill.

“Some of these projects will take four years,” Zinke said. “You have to have to have consistent funding to get the job done.”

Large portions of park infrastructure are old, dating back to the Civilian Conservation Corps era of the 1930s and the Mission 66 initiative of the 1960s, when Zion’s South Campground and museum were built.

Zinke has been touring other big national parks, such as Arizona’s Grand Canyon and Wyoming’s Yellowstone. He commented on the hovels that pass for seasonal employee housing at Yellowstone.

“It is atrocious,” he said. “We charge them for it, but they should charge us.”

He said he wants to delegate greater authority to park managers to prioritize and implement projects without excessive meddling from higher-ups in Washington or officials from other agencies.

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, center in blue shirt, inspects a renovated loop of the Watchman Campground during a tour Zion National Park on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. Zinke was in Utah promoting bipartisan legislation to address the National Park Service's $12 billion maintenance backlog.

Back at the South Campground, Zion’s maintenance chief, Treacy Stone, pointed out many of the deficiencies, starting with the drainage ditches that fill with mud during rainstorms.

“Your kids are there and they are on their bikes and they are riding all over the place. We’ve had instances when people have crashed into the ditch,” Stone said. “They fell in the ditch. It’s not right.”

Those drainage features will be placed underground as part of the campground’s renovation.

It may be old school, but this campground — tucked among native ash and cottonwood trees with about 130 campsites spread around 25 acres along the Virgin River — is filled most the year by visitors grateful to be sleeping under Zion’s soaring sandstone walls.

“Not a week goes by where we don’t get a comment concerned about the conditions of the facilities,” Zion Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said. “Bringing up those facilities to standards is incredibly important. We had 4.5 million visitors last year. They had a great experience, but we had issues. We had trails close, we had restrooms close. This legislation will give us a leg up for sure.”