WEST GLACIER – Waiting for Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to finish a private meeting with Blackfeet tribal leaders, Glacier National Park Deputy Superintendent Eric Smith did some quick math.
Add $27.8 million here, $17.4 million there, and Smith soon had tallied up $125.9 million in deferred maintenance in his park alone. That doesn’t even rank Glacier among the top 15 parks with the highest needs, although Yellowstone National Park made No. 3 with $632.3 million.
Fixing Glacier’s Route 10 alone – the spur road into the Many Glacier Valley – has a price tag of $39.2 million.
The National Park Service needs about $12.5 billion – with a ‘B’ – just to catch up on its backlogged to-do list. Just nine days into his new cabinet position, Zinke acknowledged he has some catching up to do.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” Zinke told a roomful of Glacier rangers and staff at the park headquarters on Friday. “But now when you look at the bathroom and it’s not clean, that’s my fault. You get a little different perspective when you’re in charge of the place.”
Zinke grew up in Whitefish, less than an hour west of Glacier’s main entrance. At the meeting, he reunited with his high school science teacher, Bill Schustrom – now a regular seasonal park ranger. The two joked about seeing a portrait of past Interior Secretary James Watt, who served when Zinke was in Schustrom’s classroom.
“He had the Interior pin on, but the bison was facing the other direction,” Zinke said of Watt’s portrait. “That was his way of saying he was taking the department in a different direction.”
Zinke announced his own plans to put the Interior Department on a new heading, with a pledge to push more decision-making to the park supervisor level at the expense of Washington, D.C. and regional managers. A former Navy SEAL, Zinke also spoke of breaking down some of the “stovepipes” of separate agencies like the way the military uses joint command.
That could mean more cooperation with the Agriculture Department’s U.S. Forest Service, to see if overflow park visitors might shift to trails and campgrounds on national forest sites. It might also involve shifting workers between parks as seasonal changes redirect visitor flows.
But budgets will remain a challenge. Park superintendents send their spending plans up to Zinke, who then sends a number to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. What comes back, in the form of the president’s budget plan, is what Zinke has to work with.
“It’s really hard to make the justification for capital improvement investments when you don’t have money to maintain what you already have,” Smith said.
But Glacier broke another attendance record in 2016 by welcoming 2,946,681 visitors. So in addition to dealing with the landslides that undermine the Many Glacier Road, park road engineers want to rebuild the little-known Inside North Fork Road. That expansion might help spread the crush of cars now turtling over the Going to the Sun Road.
“We’re hearing a lot of infrastructure-package talk from the administration and folks on the Hill,” said Marcia Argust, who directs the Pew Charitable Trust’s Restore America’s Parks campaign. “We need to make sure parks infrastructure is part of that package.”
In the past decade, the only major surge of parks money came in 2009, when President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. That sent about $750 million to the National Park Service, of which more than $500 million went to deferred maintenance.
“The only other time was the Mission 66 initiative,” Argust said. “That was 50 years after the initial creation of the Park Service, and things were showing issues then. They spent $1 billion, which is about $7 billion or $8 billion in today’s dollars. It’s been another 50 years, and facilities are showing more need of repairs.”