Sen. Mike Lee opposes bill backed by Utah’s House members to shift money to national parks maintenance

Washington • Sen. Mike Lee of Utah opposes a new bipartisan bill that would divert royalty money from drilling and mining on public land to chip away at the more than $11 billion backlog of maintenance needs at America’s national parks.

Lee, who sits on the Senate Energy Committee, which is expected to take up the bill Tuesday, said he can’t support the Restore Our Parks Act because it takes about $6.5 billion from the general U.S. treasury without offsetting the new spending with cuts.

“Sen. Lee does not support the Restore Our Parks Act because it is not paid for,” spokesman Conn Carroll said Monday.

Currently, a portion of royalties from mineral extraction — coal, natural gas, etc. — flows directly to America’s general treasury.

The proposed act, which is sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and supported by his three Utah House colleagues, all Republicans, would steer $6.5 billion over five years to national parks to help rebuild bridges, pave roads and upgrade trails, sewer systems and buildings.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, isn’t sure whether he will support the bill but backs the concept.

“While Senator Hatch shares concerns about the cost, he welcomes continued dialogue about long-term investment in national park infrastructure in Utah and around the country,” Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock said Monday. “He looks forward to working with his colleagues to find responsible ways to pay for this critical investment as the bill continues forward."

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke visited Zion National Park last week to gin up support for the Restore Our Parks Act, touring an aging campground and highlighting maintenance problems at just one of Utah’s five national parks.

Interior officials estimate that there’s more than $266 million in needed work at Utah’s parks, including $65 million alone at Zion.

Zinke’s office said Monday the bipartisan legislation saves money over time and urged support for the measure.

“Infrastructure is an investment, not merely an expense,” said Interior press secretary Heather Swift. “Some critics of the bill mistakenly ignore the fact that it’s a lot cheaper to fix a pothole on a bridge than rebuild the bridge when the entire thing falls down. This bill makes immediate investments in park infrastructure to prevent even bigger debts going forward.”

Swift noted that Utah's park units generate $1.1 billion for the state's economy.

“The secretary worked with Republicans and Democrats on a very popular and fiscally conscious bill to rebuild our crumbling park infrastructure using money generated by Interior’s energy program,” Swift said.

The new measure — pitched by Bishop, with the ranking Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, and senators from both sides of the aisle — has been touted as a rare moment of bipartisanship in a divided Washington.

“This is a taste of what’s possible when people work together in good faith,” Grijalva said in unveiling the legislation. “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.”

Bishop said the bill is badly needed before parks — seeing record numbers of visitors — get any worse.