On July 4th the line of cars trying to enter Rocky Mountain National Park reached a mile long. It’s a symptom of the growing popularity of public lands across the West as people increasingly enjoy the great outdoors.

The toll is adding up, however, as national parks struggle to keep up with the yearly wear and tear from millions of visitors. 

There’s good news, though, and it starts with oil and natural gas produced on non-park, non-wilderness public lands in the West.

Aaron Johnson

The National Park Service faces an enormous, $12 billion backlog of projects to fix up the roads, visitors centers, trails and other facilities that enable Americans to enjoy our country’s most treasured landscapes. That’s nearly four times what the agency receives annually from Congress.

In our backyard, Rocky Mountain National Park is the third-most popular park in the country and hosts 4.6 million visitors each year. As you can imagine, several popular trails, roads, and campgrounds in the park need to be repaired as a result.

Take for example Trail Ridge Road, known for scenic views above timberline only available during the few months when snow isn’t stacked several feet high.

Some $7 million is needed to fix up the 48-mile road between Estes Park and Grand Lake. In total, there’s $84.2 million worth of maintenance projects in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The three other parks in our state — Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes and Black Canyon of the Gunnison — are visited by a combined 1.1 million people annually. The maintenance needs across these parks total $88 million.

In Congress, momentum is building around legislation to help national parks by using revenues from oil and natural gas produced on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

The Restore Our Parks bills (S. 500 and H.R. 1225) would direct $1.3 billion already collected from energy produced on non-park, non-wilderness federal lands. Over five years, $6.5 billion would be dedicated to fix national parks. 

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Of the 700 million acres of subsurface minerals managed by BLM, only 0.07 percent is disturbed in the production of oil and natural gas.

Yet, the return is enormous. Last year, our industry generated $6.1 billion while producing energy on BLM’s public lands. The energy owned by the public can go a long way to meeting the growing needs of national parks.

As an oil and natural gas trade association focused on environmentally responsible energy development on public lands, Western Energy Alliance strongly supports this legislation. 

Few people realize it, but the oil and natural gas industry has been the major source of funding for conservation for decades. The most obvious is the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which is funded by a portion of offshore oil and natural gas royalties.

In addition, over $3.9 billion in LWCF grants to states have funded 42,000 conservation projects. Another is the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), the nation’s largest private conservation grant maker.

Many oil and natural gas companies are partners and have contributed millions to NFWF. Companies also give to the Sage Grouse Initiative, Mule Deer Foundation and many other conservation groups.

At a time when Washington is severely divided, we’re pleased to see that most of Congress recognizes how the oil and natural gas industry can continue to support conservation by helping fix up national parks.

This legislation is a rare bipartisan solution with support from more than 330 Democratic and Republican lawmakers, Vice President Mike Pence and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. 

Nearly the entire congressional delegation from Colorado supports the bill. Sen. Cory Gardner summed it up well in remarks on the Senate floor, saying the bill “fulfills the promise to make upkeep of our public lands a priority.”

As Congress debates the bills, we want to help national parks now. This month the Alliance is conducting a Parks in Wreck crowdfunding campaign to raise money for Canyonlands National Park. Near Moab, Utah, the park is popular with Colorado residents, as evidenced by all the MOAB bumper stickers you see when driving around our state.

Though we recognize the overall need of $47 million is greater than we can achieve, we’re stepping up with support to directly fund maintenance while raising awareness of a more durable legislative solution.

For more than 100 years, Americans have enjoyed traveling to national parks to see iconic sites and take time to enjoy nature. These public lands are set aside for our enjoyment, but maintenance funding has not kept up with their popularity.

Fortunately, oil and natural gas development on BLM public lands offer the resources to help address needs within national parks. Now, we just need to Congress to act.

Aaron Johnson is Vice President of Public Affairs at Western Energy Alliance.

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @WesternEnergy1