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Opinion Columns

Opinion: Colorado’s national parks desperately need funding for maintenance

Colorado is home to 16 national park sites, including four national historic trails, and they have never been more popular.

From untouched landscapes, to opportunities for hiking, fishing and camping, our parks offer so much for families and individuals to enjoy. 

Record park visitation has added millions to our state economy and helped create employment opportunities for thousands of Coloradans.

Ryan Fitzgerald

In fact, last year national park sites in Colorado attracted roughly 7.6 million visitors whose spending added over $742 million in economic output to our local communities.

This is especially true for rural, gateway communities that border our national park sites and depend on park tourism for jobs. 

However, this popularity, coupled with aging infrastructure and years of inconsistent congressional funding, has put our parks in a state of disrepair — making them less safe, less accessible and affecting their long-term viability. Our parks desperately need funding to address their maintenance needs.  

Today, the deferred maintenance needed for Colorado park sites alone is $247.6 million. Among them is Rocky Mountain National Park, a top-three visited park, which needs $84.1 million for infrastructure repairs. 

Nationally, the backlog of maintenance has grown to an astounding $11.9 billion! The big-budget items that need to be funded are things like roads, trails, bridges, water systems and historic buildings, among other assets. Unfortunately, the longer we wait to address these problems, the greater the expense will be.  

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Thankfully there is a strong bipartisan solution being considered in Congress to address this problem. Federal legislation in the House and Senate (S. 500, the Restore Our Parks Act and H.R. 1225, the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, respectively) would create a dedicated funding source for priority National Park System deferred maintenance projects.

The bill sets aside $6.5 billion over the next five years to help the National Park Service tackle some of the toughest maintenance problems at our national parks.

It is encouraging to see Republicans and Democrats from Colorado joining this bill as cosponsors; Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, as well as Reps. Scott Tipton, Diana DeGette, Joe Neguse, Doug Lamborn, Ed Perlmutter and Jason Crow, have all signed onto the bills. 

Both Senate and House bills are among the most bipartisan legislation in Washington, D.C., right now. Over two-thirds of the members of the House of Representatives and half of the Senate have co-sponsored the legislation. The Trump administration, too, has indicated its support. 

However, simply supporting legislation isn’t going to fix our parks. Thankfully, Sen. Gardner, who is part of the Republican majority in the Senate, has teamed up with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and a bipartisan group of senators, to bring this legislation to a vote in coming days. 

Given the high level of bipartisan support, it looks likely that our parks could soon be seeing the funding they deserve.  

National parks are places that tell our exceptional American story. They preserve our culture, educate our children and protect and conserve our most pristine land.

They can be an escape for the avid hiker, a sanctuary for the conservationist, a sightseeing destination for families and the adventurous tourist or a place of solace for those who seek the road less traveled. 

We are so lucky to benefit from past stewardship and thoughtful investment in our great national parks. Let’s not be the generation that breaks its obligation to care for these places in perpetuity.

Congress needs to listen to the overwhelming support from across the country and at home here in Colorado, come together and pass legislation that will make sure our national parks get the repairs they desperately need.  

Ryan Fitzgerald is an avid photographer and videographer who enjoys Colorado’s national parks. He has been calling Colorado home since 2011 and currently lives in Wheat Ridge.