Portman on Senate Floor: Let’s Get Our Parks Back on Track so They Will Be There for Future Generations

June 9, 2020 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, DC – Today on the Senate floor, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) once again highlighted his bipartisan Restore Our Parks Act which is currently under consideration on the Senate floor this week, which will support more than 100,000 jobs over the next five years. The bill will help rebuild our parks infrastructure by addressing the more than $12 billion backlog in long-delayed maintenance projects at the National Park Service (NPS). The Restore Our Parks Act is a part of a broader package, the Great American Outdoors Act -- landmark bipartisan legislation to address the deferred maintenance backlog across the federal land management agencies and to provide permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.  

Portman has pushed the Senate to pass the Restore Our Parks Act over the last several years.  The bill will establish the National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund to reduce the maintenance backlog by allocating half of the existing unobligated revenues the government receives from on and offshore energy development up to $1.3 billion per year for the next five years. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the bipartisan Restore Our Parks Act in November 2019. Portman worked with his colleagues to expand the Restore Our Parks Act to address the more than $20 billion in deferred maintenance backlog across all land management agencies in the Great American Outdoors Act. This legislation now provides $1.9 billion per year for five years into the “National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund” from half of unobligated on and offshore energy revenues. Last week, Portman announced that a new National Parks Service (NPS) study of the Restore Our Parks legislation found that the legislation will support an average of 40,300 direct jobs and a total of 100,100 direct and indirect jobs over the next five years to help address the delayed maintenance backlog and rebuild our national parks infrastructure.  

Portman thanked his cosponsors, U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Mark Warner (D-VA), and Angus King (I-ME) for their work on the legislation and President Trump for his support of this legislative effort.  

A transcript of his remarks is below and a video can be found here: 

“I’m here tonight on the floor to talk about an historic opportunity for our country and for our national parks, a true treasure of this country. When Teddy Roosevelt started the national parks, he wanted to preserve some of the most beautiful, pristine lands in America for public use. It was a good decision. Now we have 84 million acres of parkland all around the country. Some of them are historical parks, battlefields, or presidents’ homes. Some of them like Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Tetons are known as spectacular, beautiful vistas. Others, like Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, are really suburban parks. It sits between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio. It’s the 13th most visited park in the United States of America and it’s a fantastic park for fishing, for hiking, for bicycling, for going on a scenic railroad. People love the parks. There’s a good reason for that, because they are spectacular.  

“In fact, visitation at the parks is up. During the ten years just before the park centennial which was in 2016, we had about a 58 million increase in visitors to our national parks. And as the coronavirus begins to fade, thank goodness, more and more people are wanting to be outside, do things with their family, do stuff that’s not expensive but is fun and healthy. Well, our national parks are the perfect place. And as our parks begin to reopen, we’re going to get more and more visitors to those parks. 

“The problem is when they go to these parks, they’re going to find that there are some issues, and these issues are that our national parks over the years have not kept up with their maintenance, with the basics of what you would expect in any organization. The water systems, the roads, the bridges, the bathrooms, the visitor centers, the trails. Many of these are now closed in some of our parks because they haven’t had the funding to do the capital improvements so that the things you would think about in deferred maintenance at your home, for instance, if your roof starts to leak, you want to fix it because if you don’t, then your wall begins to get moldy or your floor begins to couple. That’s what’s happening in our national parks. So not only has Congress not provided the money for these more expensive infrastructure changes in our parks, but that has caused additional damage. And every day it’s causing more and more damage.  

“So it’s the biggest challenge we have in the parks. I was a member of what’s called the Centennial Commission for the national parks, which is a private sector group that was formed when I was not in public office a few years ago, and it was working up to the 2016 centennial. And the top issue, the top issue was this deferred maintenance. I have been on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and have been passing legislation related to the parks, the Centennial Act we passed in 2016. That was very important because it provided more funding to the parks. But frankly we could not come up with enough funding through the appropriations process to deal with these long-term problems. Why? Because they are so expensive. In the parks, it’s believed that there is now a $12.5 billion shortfall, $12.5 billion of deferred maintenance projects. Again, we fund the parks every year, but we fund them for the rangers, for the naturalist programs. We fund some of the good work that’s being done with schoolchildren and so on, but these big expenditures, like a new road or a new bridge or in the case of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a new railway system because the scenic railway system, the rails themselves need to be improved and replaced -- those things are just too doggone expensive for an annual appropriation.  

“So several years ago, some of us came up with an idea of providing more public-private partnerships with the parks. The Centennial Act, which I authored, does that. In fact, we have been able to provide a match of greater than one to one for money that’s put into what’s called our Centennial Challenge Fund. So the money goes in from the federal government and it’s been matched more than one to one by private sector money. That’s helpful. But it cannot again handle these huge expenditures. So another idea, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia actually came to me on this several years ago and said, ‘why don’t we take some of the revenue that’s coming from our oil and gas and other energy projects that are on federal land, both onshore and offshore, and take some of those royalties, the revenue that the federal government derives from that, which is not going for another purpose, and say that a part of those revenues -- not all, but a part of it -- should be focused on this issue of infrastructure, of this, again, deferred maintenance that is growing and growing in our parks, and getting more expensive every year if we don’t fix it.’ I love that idea because that’s exactly what the oil and gas revenue money ought to be used for, to help in terms of our natural resources.  

“And it’s not everything. The $12.5 billion has about $6 billion of immediate projects that need to be handled right away. These are the priority projects. Those are the ones we have focused on. And for the next five years in our legislation, we are requiring that enough of those resources from the royalties come in to handle that $6 billion. Assuming that the royalties are there. Right now, the cost of oil is so low that it would be tough to meet that, but we think over time that will even out and we will have enough. If there is not, then the money won’t be there. But if it is, the money will be there to do exactly what we ought to do, which is in the end save taxpayers’ money by fixing some of these problems before they get worse. Some people say well, it’s better to do it with an annual appropriations in Congress. I would say to that, in many respects, this funding for our parks is a debt unpaid. In other words, it’s money that we should have been paying all along to keep up with the roads, the bridges, the buildings, the railway systems, the seawalls as I’ll talk about in a minute, but we haven’t, so we have allowed this to build up. So in a way, this is sort of a debt that’s on our books that we have got to deal with. 

“Think about it in your family or in your business. If you allow these deferred maintenance problems to continue to grow, you end up having even additional costs. So we need to take care of it, and this is a great way to do it, taking these revenues and applying it to these immediate problems. By the way, there is a lot of discussion here in Congress over the years about shovel-ready projects. When you do infrastructure spending, you want it to be shovel-ready. These are shovel-ready because they have been vetted. We require the parks service to provide us every year, what are their infrastructure needs, what are their priority infrastructure needs, and to rank them. So for every single national park property in America, we know what it is. As an example, here, this is the William Howard Taft birthplace in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. As you can see, the ceiling is leaking. And what happens is the ceiling leaks and then the wall is getting damaged and the floor is getting damaged, and some beautiful furniture here from the Taft era is getting damaged, so we need to fix it. It’s a big expense because really it’s the entire roof that has got to be repaired. And their annual budget is not nearly enough to do that. They have an annual budget. It takes care of a few park rangers who are naturalists and interpreters. They have a lot of school kids that come through, as an example, and others that want to see the history of William Howard Taft’s upbringing, who was Chief Justice as well as President of the United States, but no way is the annual appropriation of Congress enough to do something like that. It needs these kinds of additional resources.  

“Here we are at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This is one of the buildings that you can see that’s not in great repair. They don’t have the money to take it down. They don’t have the money certainly to be able to repair these kinds of buildings. All they want to do with this building is take it down. It’s a hazard because as you can imagine it’s attracting crime and drug use and other issues, so they have got several buildings like that. Here’s another one. This is the railway I talked about at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I’m here with the park director. This ranger is a guy who has been all around the country. He told me that at every single one of our parks, he has had to work through this issue of how do you take our budget and be sure you have the rangers, have the naturalist programs, can keep things just in order, but then don’t have enough to pay for these big expenses. We’re right near a bridge here which is also falling down. When the bridge is falling down, people aren’t going to be able to access the trail and the bike trail. So, it’s a big expense, but you have to do it.  

“Here I am at the Perry monument. This is on Lake Erie. For those of you who have been to Put-In-Bay, you know it’s a great place to go, and the Perry monument is awesome. It not only talks about William Perry and his history and legacy but the War of 1812 and all of the veterans of that war and the relationship now between Canada, the United States, and the UK now being our great allies. That wasn’t always so. But the War of 1812 was essential for the United States and something, you know, as part of an historical park to be remembered. But the seawall that protects that memorial is crumbling. Seawalls don’t last forever, and this one is not lasting forever. Particularly as the Lake Erie water level is increasing. You can see not only is the seawall crumbling but there are potholes behind me here -- sinkholes people call them. People aren’t allowed to go on the lakefront here in many places because of that. So that’s a huge expense to do a seawall, but they have to do it to protect the monument itself. The visitors’ center there is also not ADA compatible, Americans With Disabilities Act, so we need funding to do that, which is another major expense. So these are the kinds of things we are talking about.  

“This isn’t just my home state of Ohio. This is about $100 million that needs to come out of this fund just for the state of Ohio. Again, there are other states that have bigger national parks and more needs and more infrastructure, more roads and bridges that need help, but for us, this is really important. We have got to be sure that we are protecting this incredible treasure for future generations, and that’s what this legislation is about. It’s going to be on the floor here this week and voted on as part of the Great American Outdoors Act, which includes also money for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. I will say with regard to the national park funding, this funding is directed at stewardship. In other words, not a single penny of the money we’re talking about with the Restore Our Parks Act that I have been describing can go toward expansion of a park, not one penny. All of it has to go toward restoring the parks, toward stewardship of the park. And I think that’s important because whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, I think you should agree that the extent that we have these parks and we have these lands, we need to take better care of them. It's our responsibility. We are the stewards. Our generation, again, are the stewards for future generations, and we have not done it.  

“This is an opportunity to right that wrong and to get back on track. So my hope is that we’ll continue to see support for this on both sides of the aisle, both sides of the Capitol. It’s really important. We saw on Monday night there was the first trial vote to be able to proceed to the debate on this bill, and that vote was overwhelming. 80 senators voted for it out of 100. Now, that’s unusual around here. But that shows, again, the bipartisan nature of this and the fact that this is carefully thought out. We spent a lot of time on it. We have gotten it out of committee not once but a couple of times. We have done a lot of research on it. We have made sure that the parks again are providing us the good data to know exactly what these projects are, which are their highest priorities. There is a lot of discussion in this chamber about putting more money into infrastructure, and maybe that will be done as part of the next legislation. They have talked about it in terms of the next stimulus package should have infrastructure funding. Whether it’s rural broadband or whether it’s our ports or our roads or our bridges, I think there is an opportunity there. You put a dollar in, you get more than a dollar back if you do the right kind of smart economic infrastructure.  

“But there are two problems with it. One, often it’s not merit-based if Congress does it. Remember the bridge to nowhere years ago, where there was a bridge in Alaska that I guess didn’t really go anywhere but yet we were going to pay millions of dollars for it. These are not bridges to nowhere. These projects have all been vetted. It’s a merit-based process. Second, sometimes they just aren’t shovel-ready. In other words, the priority is to fix something but you don’t have the permits, you don’t have the approval. These are on national park lands. They have the approvals. They’re ready to go. So they are shovel-ready, they are merit-based. Discussion around here often, particularly, with infrastructure is not to pay for it with an offset but rather because infrastructure spending returns capital, which it does if it’s done properly, and this would return a lot because this is stuff that is going to involve more visitors, more revenue being raised through people coming to the parks, attending the parks, for the communities certainly where the parks are in but even the parks themselves. We are talking often about not paying for it. Here we actually do have a pay-for. It’s not a traditional pay-for, I acknowledge that, but it is funding that comes from the royalties, again, from offshore and onshore oil and gas and other energy projects that goes into fixing our national parks. It’s our responsibility as stewards to do that.  

“My hope is what we will see tomorrow and the next day and maybe into next week, depending on how long people want to debate this, that we can continue to have the support that we saw on Monday night for our parks. It’s one of the true treasures of our country. It’s a great asset that if we don’t fix it will not be there for future generations because these things, once they start to crumble, once the seawall is gone, the monument is gone. When you have a situation where bathrooms are closed or trails are closed, again people are going to show up and be understandably disappointed that the United States Congress did not take advantage of this opportunity if we do not vote for this to be able to fix the parks for future generations.  

“Finally, I would like to thank not just my colleague, Senator Warner, who I talked about earlier, who has been a champion on this issue, but also Senator Lamar Alexander and Senator King, Senator Angus King. Senator Alexander has been involved in these issues for many years. Back in the Reagan Administration, he was on another commission. I mentioned the Centennial Commission for the parks, he was on another commission about the great outdoors which recommended dealing with this issue. Again, this has been the top issue for our national parks. If we can pass this legislation, $6.5 billion over the next five years for our national parks, this will be truly historic. This is in a sense a Teddy Roosevelt moment for us, in this generation, our generation to be able to right the wrongs, fix the problems, get our parks back on track so they will be there for future generations.  

“I also want to thank the President of the United States and his cabinet because they have been helpful in this. The Secretary of Interior, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and President Trump actually increased the size of this program by saying let’s not just include our national parks, let’s include our national wildlife areas, let's include our national forests. So this is even an broader program than just the national parks now. But this is really important and it was in the president’s budget each of the last three years. I appreciate that and that gives us a chance how to get this not just through the Senate and House, but actually signed into law because the president’s prepared to sign it if we can get it done here. So I hope my colleagues will, again, do what we did on Monday night, recognize this is an important initiative at a time when our country is once again polarized and we have plenty of issues between the coronavirus and what’s happening on the streets, isn’t it good to see something that can bring our country, our Senate, our House, our president together to do something that’s important future generations.”