Senate panel endorses bill to fix up national parks; Utah’s Mike Lee joins three Republicans to oppose it

(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.

Washington • A Senate committee Tuesday advanced legislation to set aside billions of dollars to whittle away at a maintenance backlog at America’s national parks, with Sen. Mike Lee of Utah joining three other Republicans in voting against the proposal.

Lee opposed the measure, called the Restore Our Parks Act, because he said it takes away money from the general treasury without any related cuts elsewhere, shortchanging the government at a time the national debt is increasing. He also said the bill mandates funding, leaving Congress unable to control it at a later date.

Lee, who has branded himself as a fiscal conservative champion and votes against temporary budget bills out of principle, said the U.S. government already owns more land than it can manage, including a large chunk of Utah.

“Unfortunately, the federal government has found it difficult to be a good steward of all that land,” Lee said. “Some of that is understandable. It’s foreseeable. When any one entity owns that much land, it’s going to be tough to keep up with it.”

But the measure, a bipartisan effort to tamp down the billions in roads, bridges, trails and other maintenance needs on public lands, eventually passed 19-4 with Lee and GOP Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Jim Risch of Idaho voting against moving the legislation to the Senate floor.

The bill’s sponsors cheered its passage.

“These parks, as we all know, are our national treasures, and this is a national problem,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “I look forward to working with my colleagues on addressing it.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had pushed for the legislation, flying to Utah last week to visit Zion National Park, which alone has an estimated $65 million in maintenance needs. Nationwide, there is an $18 billion backlog, with about $12 billion of that in national park units.

Utah’s four House members, Reps. Rob Bishop, John Curtis, Mia Love and Chris Stewart, all back the companion legislation in their chamber. Sen. Orrin Hatch is undecided.

Portman, who worked with both sides of the aisle to write the bill, said the measure is fiscally conservative because fixing things now saves the government from having to start from scratch later.

“To me, it’s about good stewardship, as we’ve been talking about today, and it’s about saving tax dollars over the long term with predictable funding for capital expenditures,” Portman said.

“Americans have already decided these are good investments,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., added.

The committee voted down one amendment by Lee that would have made the parks funding discretionary — therefore at Congress' whim — rather than mandatory.

But he was able to amend the bill to require the Interior Department to report annually on what projects are being funded, any cost overruns and a cost-benefit analysis to ensure the most pressing issues are being addressed.

The Restore Our Parks Act has earned support from various groups, including the environmental community.

“Too many of our parks’ water systems, visitor centers, roads and trails have been neglected — not because of lack of will but because of lack of money,” said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association. “Park rangers have had to make due with shoestring budgets while aging infrastructure takes its toll.”