Yellowstone’s Gateway Communities Discuss Challenges, Deferred Maintenance Backlog at Congressional Field Hearing

As national parks have soared in popularity in recent years, local leaders in the communities surrounding Yellowstone spoke to U.S. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) about how increased visitation is leading to strain on resources in the area during a Congressional field hearing on Friday.

“With increased visitation comes increased strain,” said Sen. Daines, who also noted that visitors spent $3.2 billion in Montana in 2017, which could also bring positive economic benefits to the state and gateway communities.

The National Parks Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources field hearing was held at the Gardiner Public School, which closely borders Yellowstone National Park.

Visitation to Yellowstone has increased 40 percent over the past decade, while staffing levels have either “eroded” or remained at similar levels over the same timeframe.

Gardiner is regularly recognized as one of the top schools in the state, but enrollment has decreased in recent years thanks in part to climbing real estate prices and an influx of vacation homes, where residents tend to be seasonal.

“This has been a tough stretch for our school district, arguably one of the most challenging in its history,” Gardiner Public Schools Board of Trustees Chairman Pat Baltzley said. “We face severe budgetary constraints due to a change in financial structures. We face an infrastructure need of maintenance due to aging. We face declining enrollment due to a change in our community’s housing situation.  The impact of these factors has hit us hard, as we’ve been a school district committed to providing the best educational experiences for our students.”

Gardiner had historically received funding from the National Park Service (NPS), which Baltzley said allowed the school district to build up a sizable cash reserve. But that funding structure has shifted away from NPS which has resulted in lower funding levels.

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly praised Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for prioritizing a solution to the nation’s $11.6 billion deferred maintenance backlog–$500 million of which is tied to Yellowstone alone.

“We need to take aggressive actions to make infrastructure improvements across the system,” he said.

“Secretary Zinke has made it his highest legislative priority to establish a dedicated fund to address this backlog.”  Sholly added that he appreciated Sen. Daine’s co-sponsorship of legislation that would dedicate billions of dollars to rebuilding park infrastructure.

The bill in question, Restore Our Parks Act, would siphon revenue the federal government receives from royalty payments associated with energy production into a fund that is dedicated to national park maintenance.  The legislation currently enjoys bipartisan support in both chambers.  Sen. Daines is a co-sponsor of the Senate bill, as are U.S. Senators Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).  On the House side, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) is co-sponsoring the bill alongside Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.)

“I think as a Secretary, it’s a fair proposition that if you’re going to gain wealth through energy development—whether it’s oil and gas, or wind or solar on public lands, then you too should have an obligation to maintain and support those public lands in perpetuity,” Zinke told the Senate Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies in May.

West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce Director Marysue Costello was also complimentary of the Restore Our Parks Act adding, “it will be critical to this area and to all national parks.”

“This Act, by addressing the backlog of infrastructure needs, would enable more of the regular park appropriations to find its way into additional staff and integral to addressing many of the visitor management challenges,” Costello said.