Montana’s national parks brought in 7.4 million visitors last year. It was the busiest year on record for Glacier National Park and the second-busiest for Yellowstone.

Those visitors spent an estimated half billion dollars in gateway communities in Montana, supporting 9,500 jobs. There is simply no doubt Montana’s national parks are a significant economic boon for our state.

But that windfall could soon go away if the widespread maintenance needs of our national parks are not addressed. Maintenance funding has not kept pace with rapidly expanding visitation, and repairs to roads, water systems, buildings and other assets that should be completed get put off year after year.

The result today is a massive maintenance backlog. In Montana alone, the National Park Service has cataloged over $250 million in deferred maintenance — which is work that has been delayed for more than a year.

This is the type of problem that compounds on itself over time. In many cases, neglecting maintenance projects makes them even more expensive to address when they’re finally attended to.

Nationwide, the deferred maintenance problem across the entirety of the National Park System amounts to $11.3 billion. Without congressional intervention in the form of a dedicated funding source for maintenance, that number is sure to grow.

If there’s any silver lining to this issue, it’s that addressing deferred maintenance has the potential to create thousands of jobs. A recent analysis commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts estimates spending a full $11.3 billion on deferred maintenance would create over 110,000 construction jobs nationwide.

Their analysis breaks those jobs numbers down at the state level as well — for Montana, about 2,500 construction jobs would be created.

That’s a significant boost in job creation for our state just by addressing the infrastructure needs that we should be taking care of anyway.

Addressing the NPS maintenance backlog has been identified as a priority by our Montana congressional delegation and by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, among others. The challenge for Congress will be to determine where the money comes from.

But there is no doubt deferred maintenance should be a top spending priority. These national parks are a treasure for our state — not just as a major driver of our tourism industry, but as a proud legacy for future generations.

If the user experience in the parks declines due to poor infrastructure, we will surely see a dip in visitation. That may not be far off if the deferred maintenance backlog is allowed to grow. Let’s put Montanans to work fixing this problem — please join me in calling on Congress to dedicate real funding for National Park Service maintenance.

Rep. Wendy McKamey, R-Great Falls, represents House District 19. She is a member of the House Transportation Committee.

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