Guest Commentary

Our national parks have been neglected for years. These bipartisan bills can save them

U.S. National Park Service Park Ranger Norton Canfield, right, leads a tour of Harry S. Truman’s home at the Harry S. Truman National Historical Site in this 2013 file photo.
U.S. National Park Service Park Ranger Norton Canfield, right, leads a tour of Harry S. Truman’s home at the Harry S. Truman National Historical Site in this 2013 file photo. Star file photo

Missouri’s national parks have never been more popular. Record park visitation has added millions to our state economy and helped create new employment opportunities for thousands of Missourians. But the increased numbers of visitors — coupled with aging roads, trails, bridges, water systems and historic buildings, as well as years of underfunding from Congress — have led to crumbling infrastructure in those national parks, making them less safe and accessible.

In June, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to encourage our Missouri representatives and senators to support Senate Bill 500, the Restore Our Parks Act, and House Resolution 1225, the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act. I am pleased that Sen. Roy Blunt and Reps. William Lacy Clay, Emanuel Cleaver, Sam Graves, Vicky Hartzler and Billy Long have signed on as cosponsors to dedicate funding to our national parks.

Missouri is home to 12 national park sites, six of which are part of the multistate National Historic Trails system. Today, the cost of deferred maintenance projects on national park properties in our state alone tops $73 million. Nationally, the backlog has ballooned to nearly $12 billion. The longer we wait to address these problems, the more expensive they become.

National park sites in Missouri attracted 3.6 million people last year alone, creating $411 million in economic impact to our local communities. Maintenance backlogs have caused some park sites to close or limit access, which ultimately impacts both the number of visitors and Missouri’s economy.

Closure or limited access to national parks especially affects gateway communities that border park sites. As mayor of one such community, I know these impacts are real. With a decrease in park visitors comes a hit to our small businesses, our local jobs and the strength of our tax base to fund schools and local government.

This legislation in the House and Senate would help address the problem by providing dedicated federal funding for priority National Park System deferred maintenance projects. The bills would set aside $6.5 billion to help fix our national parks over the next five years. Both bills use existing revenue. No taxes will be raised.

I believe that the National Park System assets in our state — the Gateway Arch, the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site, the Ozark National Scenic Riverways and the Lewis and Clark, Trail of Tears and Pony Express National Historic Trails, among others — are all treasures that deserve to be preserved. But they’ve been neglected for too long, and that wear and tear is starting to show.

It’s time for Congress to act. The Restore Our Parks Act and Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act are among the most bipartisan bills in Congress today. Already, over two-thirds of the members of the House of Representatives and nearly half of the Senate have cosponsored the legislation. The Trump administration, too, has indicated support. I encourage all Missourians to thank the elected leaders who have cosponsored these bills, and to ask for the support of those who have not.

National parks are places that tell our great American story. They preserve our culture, educate our children and safeguard our land. We owe it to ourselves and to those who come after us to preserve and protect our national parks.

Eileen Weir is mayor of Independence, Missouri, home to the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site.