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Is Trump's national parks backlog bunk?

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke took President Donald Trump up on an intriguing offer this week: the donation of his first presidential paycheck—$78,333—to help offset the National Park Service's $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog. Zinke commended Trump on his dedication to "our veterans, our public lands, and keeping his promises."

Denver-based nonprofit Center for Western Priorities quickly denounced the publicity stunt as, well, a "publicity stunt," saying Zinke and Trump should be embarrassed to crow over such a piddly contribution. It was the second time in as many weeks that CWP chastised Trump in relation to the backlog. On March 20, the organization claimed the president's proposed budget would fund long-overdue projects in parks only at the expense of other conservation programs.

"When President Trump's skinny budget came out, we saw that he was basically proposing to raid the Land and Water Conservation Fund ... and divert that money to the backlog," says CWP media director Aaron Weiss.

Deferred maintenance is a serious issue in Montana. Yellowstone's backlog totals more than $631 million. At Glacier, the figure is nearly $180 million. Maintenance for roads, trails, and water and sewer systems is at stake. In Glacier, restoration of the aging Many Glacier Hotel carries a cost of $15 million.

CWP argues that the $12 billion figure floated by Trump and other politicians is inflated, due in part to the inclusion of projects under the purview of private concessionaires. The Center for American Progress, which released an in-depth report on the backlog in February, states that $389 million of those maintenance needs are specific to concessionaire-operated facilities. The group's data identifies $18.6 million of Glacier's deferred maintenance as private. In Yellowstone, it's $68 million.

"That list of deferred maintenance projects could really be this Trojan horse for the Trump administration to give away hundreds of millions in what should be taxpayer dollars to hotel corporations, to resort owners, to food service companies," says CAP spokesperson Nicole Gentile.

Tim Harvey, a retired parks official now consulting for the National Parks Conservation Association, counters that the issue isn't that clear cut. While concessionaires may be operating facilities like Many Glacier, he says, those buildings are owned by American taxpayers. Even if a concessionaire's contract includes maintenance stipulations, those work orders must be reported to the Park Service, which is why they show up in the backlog. In some cases, Harvey adds, requiring a contractor to swallow $15 million in maintenance would be unfeasible. "Really, if you tried to put that on the concessionaire, nobody would bid on it."

Gentile stresses that it isn't CAP's position that parks shouldn't receive the funding they need, only that Congress should look hard at how it invests public dollars. And that when politicians use the backlog's enormity to justify cuts to other conservation efforts—well, that's inexcusable.

"Anti-conservation members of Congress are saying we can't take care of public lands because we have this big backlog," Gentile says, "and that's not the case."

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