Local News

Interior secretary’s Grand Canyon visit highlights need for funds to fix infrastructure

September 25, 2018


Cronkite News

GRAND CANYON VILLAGE – The Grand Canyon twists through northern Arizona, a deep gash cut by the Colorado River. But the river had help from wind, rain and scorching sun, which also has battered its lodges, roads, and utility structures.

On Saturday, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke visited Grand Canyon’s windswept streets, sunbaked cabins and aging wastewater treatment facility to bring attention to the National Park Service’s $11.6 billion backlog in maintenance projects, known as deferred maintenance. These are projects, from roads to buildings, that have had work postponed because of budget constraints. 

Zinke joined volunteers painting six cabins built in the 1930s and talked about Congressional legislation he thinks would give the agency the funds to fix infrastructure.

There are at least three bills in Congress to provide billions of dollars for park repairs: The National Park Legacy Act and the National Park Restoration Act in the Senate and The Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, which cleared the House Natural Resource Committee earlier this month on a voice vote. Zinke supports that House bill.

The committee’s chairman Rep. Rob Bishop, R-UT came together with Rep. Raul Grijalva, D- Ariz., the committee’s ranking leader, to help get the legislation out of committee. At Zion National Park on Sunday, Zinke told the Deseret News “that’s a milestone,” that Bishop and Grijalva could agree on the bill.

“Parks are not a Republican or Democrat issue,” Zinke said while at the Grand Canyon. “Parks are an American issue.”

Restore Our Parks, and the National Park Restoration Act would set up funds that would take some revenue from energy development, from oil and gas to solar and wind, on federal lands to pay for park repairs.

National parks in Arizona have almost $530 million in deferred maintenance, nearly $330 million of which is at Grand Canyon National Park. 

“It’s time for America to step up and rebuild our parks to make sure we have the same experience for the next generation,” Zinke said. With more than 330 million National Park visitors a year – more than 6 million of them at Grand Canyon – the country’s parks “are being loved to death,” he said.

But to get even daily work done in Grand Canyon is challenging because of the landscape. For instance, said Chris Lehnertz, Grand Canyon National Park’s superintendent, helicopters have to pick up barrels of compost from park toilets and fly it to treatment plants.

Potable water also is an issue. The park pumps all drinking water for the South Rim from a spring on the North Rim, Lehnertz said.

“That system, which is called the Trans-Canyon Water Line, is out of date and it’s failing,” she said. “It’s over 50 years old.”

Updating that water line is the park’s biggest project, Lehnertz said. The National Park Service doesn’t support any given piece of legislation to fix the deferred maintenance, she said. “We do take a position on how important it is to get this work done.”

Volunteers are one way to get some of the work done, like on Saturday when Zinke helped paint the old cabins.

Brytnee Miller, representing the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group in Tucson, acknowledged Zinke’s effort to improve the six cabins, but she was concerned about his track record of opening federal lands for private development. She led a five-person protest against Zinke and his policies Saturday. 

She said her organization takes particular effort to defend national parks, which are home to many animals.

“These are ancient corridors for wildlife migration,” Miller said. “This is sacred land with cultural significance. It’s where people enjoy being outdoors. We work to protect those things.”

Miller doesn’t support drilling for oil on federal land, which the Restore Our Parks and Public Land Act includes.

“He (Zinke) would have to really step his game up and show … it’s not just dirty energy that’s fueling this restoration fund, because what is restoration if it’s coming from more destruction?” Miller said, referring to coal and oil.

Zinke said the Restore Our Parks Act would draw on all forms of energy including wind, solar and oil.

“I think it’s shameful, some of these outlandish accusations,” Zinke said about criticisms of the Restoration Act. “No one loves public land more than me.”