In rare show of cooperation, Republicans and Democrats join to push investment in national parks

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) In this May 5, 2015, photo hikers walk on the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion National Park. More than 30,000 people crowded to Zion National Park in a single day over Memorial Day weekend as the iconic red-rock landscape at the already crowded park remains highly popular.

Washington • In a rare moment of bipartisanship, a House committee on Thursday reauthorized a long-standing program to buy up and preserve treasured lands as well as dedicate new funding to chip away at a multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog for national parks.

The House Natural Resources Committee advanced the legislation by its chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, and top Democrat, Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona. The move was cheered on by environmental groups as a sign that while partisan fights dominate Washington, there are still areas where politicians can agree.

“Today, Republican and Democratic members of the committee joined forces to move legislation they recognize as a wise investment for park resources, preserving our nation’s history and local economies,” said Marcia Argust, who directs the Pew Charitable Trust's campaign to restore America’s parks.

“When national parks are accessible and in good condition, people visit and spend,” she added. “And when they spend — more than $18 billion last year alone — businesses are bolstered, jobs are created, and communities are strengthened.”

The bill, called the Restore Our Parks Act, would use funds that aren’t otherwise earmarked to go toward fixing roads, bridges, sewer systems, trails and other needs at national parks, wildlife refugees and recreation areas. Those funds would come from energy development on federal lands. The measure would increase funding to the Bureau of Indian Education, which runs schools for about 50,000 American Indian students.

The National Park Services estimates that in Utah, there’s more than $266 million in needed work to maintain park resources, including about $65 million at Zion National Park.

“The overwhelming bipartisan support for this bill demonstrates the value and power our national parks have for bringing people together and bridging differences,” said Theresa Pierno, president of the National Parks Conservation Association.

The other measure passed by the committee would permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was set up to buy up land near other federal tracts for preservation and recreation. The measure also ensures that current land owned by the government is maintained.

“This is a taste of what’s possible when people work together in good faith,” Grijalva said in a statement. “Days like these are far too rare in Congress, and if we keep this up we might just restore public trust in Congress’ ability to get things done.”

Support for national parks, Bishop said, “knows no party lines.”

“As America’s beloved national parks buckle under the weight of broken pipes, crumbling roads and other incomplete projects, additional funding is crucial to keeping parks safe and accessible for the public,” Bishop said. “This bill addresses that need.”

Bishop has been a critic of the Land and Water Conservation Fund mainly, he said, because the program focused too much on buying up more private land rather than focusing on preserving the land already owned by the government. He says the the new bill addresses that.

“This bill, along with additional action we took today, ensures that Congress adequately funds the lands it already owns and realigns the fund back to its original goal of ensuring that hunters, fishermen, and families have access to recreational activities,” Bishop said.