WEST GLACIER – Less than 50 miles north of here, as the crow flies, officials at Waterton Lakes National Park announced this week they had chosen a location for a new $7.6 million visitor center inside the park.
It will replace an old (1950s-era), tiny (600-square-feet) visitor center that park officials call “wholly inadequate to meet the needs and volumes of today’s visitors.”
It’s a big deal for Waterton, Glacier National Park’s next-door neighbor and, since 1932, half of the world’s first international peace park.
Perhaps even more noteworthy, however, is that the visitor center is just one of 17 major infrastructure upgrades or replacements being completed in Waterton over a five-year period.
The Canadian government is investing $107.5 million in Waterton Lakes National Park infrastructure during that time. And that’s just a drop in the Canadian bucket.
Overall, Parks Canada has been authorized to spend $2.6 billion to tackle long-deferred projects in its 46 national parks over the five-year period that started last year.
The massive investment is unprecedented in the 104-year history of Parks Canada.
Here in the United States, where the National Park Service is celebrating its 100th year, the tab for deferred maintenance in America's national parks, historic sites and other public lands overseen by NPS is now approaching $12 billion.
Deferred maintenance is any work that would normally be done in a National Park Service unit, but is delayed a year or more because Congress has not provided funding to do so. The $12 billion is pretty evenly divided between transportation (roads) and non-transportation (buildings, campgrounds, etc.) needs.
Jeffrey Olson, a spokesman for NPS, said the agency is allocated approximately half of what it needs annually to stay on track with maintenance schedules. For fiscal year 2015, the need totaled $820 million.
The funding provided was $429 million. Each year, even as previously deferred projects are picked off, new ones cycle onto the list and the backlog grows.
“We could use twice as much money as we get to stay even,” Olson said. “Nationally, we’re running at approximately a 50 percent deficit every year.”
In Glacier Park, the current replacement value of all its assets – roads, buildings, campgrounds, trails, employee housing, water and wastewater systems – is almost $1.4 billion.
The price of deferred maintenance projects on those assets falls just shy of $180 million. Of that, NPS says more than $23 million has been identified as “critical or serious deferred maintenance located in critical asset components.”
“Those are often assets that are protective of other assets, like a roof,” Olson says. “A hole in a roof can lead to damage of electrical systems or items in a collection. It’s deferred maintenance that leaves other items at risk.”
The $23 million does not include a figure for paved roads, which was unavailable.
Jim Foster, chief of facility management at Glacier, says two-thirds of the $179.8 million in deferred maintenance in the park relates to roads.
An 11-year rehabilitation project for Going to the Sun Road is entering its 10th year, but Foster says the park has “a lot of roads that need a lot of work,” including the Inside North Fork Road on the west side of Glacier, the road to Many Glacier, and that portion of the Chief Mountain Highway located inside park boundaries, which carries visitors between Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Park.
Roadwork takes up a big chunk of the $107.5 million worth of projects going on in the Canadian park that sits on the Montana border.
Chief Mountain Highway becomes Alberta Highway 6 in Waterton Lakes National Park. It and Alberta Highway 5, which runs east-west and takes traffic into the Waterton Lakes townsite, will get pavement overlays and guardrail and culvert replacement on priority sections.
All 9.4 miles of the Akamina Parkway, which travels from near the current visitor center to Cameron Lake, is being resurfaced, and heavily congested trailheads on the route are being reconfigured. Waterton’s other parkway, Red Rock, and its lower parking lot at Red Rock Canyon, are also being reconstructed.
“Eighty-three percent of our visitors go up the Red Rock Parkway,” Waterton Lakes Superintendent Ifan Thomas says. “It’s a great place to watch bears.”
Waterton Lakes National Park gets only one-fifth of the visitors that Glacier does – last year, 477,000 visitors to Glacier’s 2.3 million – but it’s also located in a country with roughly a tenth of the population of the U.S.
A study done in 2011 indicated almost half of the people who entered Waterton Lakes Park said they also either had or would cross the border to visit Glacier, according to Doreen McGillis, external relations manager for Waterton.
Thomas says Parks Canada is the third-largest custodian of Canadian assets, overseeing infrastructure valued at $15 billion.
“A few years ago the government did an analysis of the condition of those assets, and found $2.8 billion were in poor condition,” Thomas says. “The government put a proposal together to recapitalize and consolidate those assets. In November of 2014, the prime minister announced a plan to deal with that deferred maintenance.”
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Parks Canada is in charge of 46 national parks, 168 national historic sites and four national marine conservation areas.
In the U.S., the National Park Service oversees 409 units in more than two dozen different categories, including 59 national parks, 80 national monuments, 78 national historic sites and 50 national historic parks.
There are also national parkways, national seashores, national lakeshores, national battlefields and national preserves, to name a few of the other categories.
Olson says the $12 billion in deferred maintenance in U.S. parks includes items such as the replacement of the Transcanyon Pipeline, the only source of drinking water in Grand Canyon National Park. Already two decades past its expected life, the remote 16-mile pipeline breaks between five and 30 times a year, leading to costly patchwork repairs in areas only accessible by burro or helicopter.
“It fails on a regular basis,” Olson says.
Replacing the entire pipeline, which has been counted as part of the National Park Service’s deferred maintenance for more than 20 years, would cost $220 million, according to Olson.
Infrastructure projects like the Grand Canyon pipeline, or the $60 million necessary to replace the roof on the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C., or the $80 million needed for a wastewater treatment plant in Yosemite National Park, are widespread throughout the National Park System.
In Waterton, Thomas is “ecstatic” about the 17 projects scheduled to be completed by 2019.
“They’re all extremely important,” he says. “Maintenance is an ongoing and ever-present issue.”
In addition to roadwork, Waterton will replace five washrooms in its townsite that have fallen into disrepair or are in poor condition. It will replace 29-bed bunkhouse units used to house staff, but that have deteriorated. The townsite will get 38 new garbage bins, and 35 new concrete pads for them to sit on.
Twenty-six miles of fence that runs from the 49th Parallel to Yarrow Canyon on the east boundary of the park will be repaired or replaced, making it more difficult for domestic cattle on neighboring ranches and grazing leases to trespass into the park.
Waterton Lakes National Park maintains a small herd of bison – never more than 10 – for display purposes; the 64-year-old bison handling facility will be rebuilt. So will Waterton’s Peace Park Pavilion, which celebrates its links to Glacier and is a World Heritage Site.
The aging Resource Conservation building, garages and storage sheds in the Compound Area will be replaced. A new bridge over Blakiston Creek will be built, and viewing platforms at Blakiston Falls replaced. Crandell Mountain Campground will get a new septic system. A creek crossing will also be designed and constructed to provide access to the group camp area in the Belly River Campground.
Six of Canada’s 46 national parks have towns located within their borders, and Waterton Lakes is one of them. Fewer than 100 people live in Waterton’s townsite year-round, but approximately 2,000 call it home during the summer months.
“We have water and sewer lines in the townsite, and some are 60 to 70 years old,” Thomas says.
They’ll be replaced, and new roads and sidewalks will then be put in above them. The popular campground at the southern end of the townsite will also have its failing water and sewer infrastructure replaced, work that will include the installation of new service lines to individual campsites, along with electrical upgrades to half of the campground.
And that new $7.6 million visitor center – officially, the Waterton Lakes National Park Visitor Reception Centre – will also house offices for park administrators who now work out of a deteriorating building, plus a summer interpretive theater.
“That’s part of the consolidation, reducing the asset base,” Thomas says. Instead of three separate things to maintain – a visitor center, an administration building and an interpretive theater – now there will be one.
The current visitor center is located across Highway 5 from the Prince of Wales Hotel. In addition to being able to only handle a small number of people at a time, it has inadequate parking as well. The trailhead for the Bears Hump Trail, Waterton’s most-used hiking trail, is also located at the visitor center parking lot.
The new center will move into the townsite, on Windflower Avenue, close to the campground entrance and adjacent to the townsite’s tennis courts and playground.
Virtually every visitor to Waterton visits the townsite, and the center will be within walking distance of everyplace in the small town.
“This location will maximize the opportunity for Parks Canada to connect directly, multiple times during a singe visit, with the greatest number of visitors,” McGillis says.
Construction will begin in 2018, and the center is expected to open in 2019.
The $2.6 billion that Canada is investing in its national parks over five years is part of a $5.8 billion national infrastructure program. Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced it about 11 months prior to the 2015 Canadian elections, and in the face of opposition leader Justin Trudeau’s call for infrastructure funding.
Harper’s Conservative Party still lost to the Liberal Party led by Trudeau, who became Canada’s prime minister in November.
In the U.S., President Obama will again request $900 million extra during a three-year period in his 2017 budget for the National Park Service to address its growing backlog of deferred maintenance. Congress removed the money from the 2016 budget it passed.