Editorials

Hit by Florence or not, North Carolina’s national parks need help

The Blue Ridge Parkway attracts more annual visitors than Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon combined.
The Blue Ridge Parkway attracts more annual visitors than Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon combined. 2009 News & Observer file photo

As Hurricane Florence churns across the Carolinas, the attention has rightly been on the coast and affected inland areas including Charlotte and Columbia.

But the storm is also expected to dump on another area that has already weathered shifting sands for decades, and needs help. Western North Carolina was bracing for flooding and landslides this weekend, including on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and other federal park lands.

Whether this storm damages those areas or not, the Blue Ridge Parkway and other national park sites in North Carolina and across the nation are already in disrepair after decades of neglect. The National Park Service estimates it faces a maintenance backlog of some $11.6 billion, including $437 million in North Carolina.

North Carolina is third in the nation for visitor spending at national park sites, behind only California and Alaska. Some 19 million people visited national parks in North Carolina last year and spent about $1.3 billion at hotels, restaurants, shops and other businesses. The Blue Ridge Parkway gets more visitors than Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon combined.

Too often, those visitors encounter potholes, deteriorating bridges, broken bathrooms and crumbling historic buildings. The National Park System’s maintenance budget is skeletal, and it has been 50 years since the last significant investment in it. So the needs have piled up, and the park service now estimates that the Blue Ridge Parkway’s North Carolina section needs $275 million in repairs. Great Smoky Mountains National Park needs $64 million, and other NC sites, like Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Cape Lookout National Seashore need a combined $100 million in upkeep.

Thankfully, there is movement in Congress on this issue and — are you sitting down? — it’s bipartisan. The House Natural Resources Committee on Thursday approved on a voice vote the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act. A Senate committee is expected to take up similar legislation later this month.

The bill would dedicate $1.3 billion per year for five years to national park maintenance. That’s $6.5 billion, or more than half the total need.

The money would come from royalties that energy companies pay to the federal government for energy development on federal lands and offshore. It would use funds that are not currently spoken for; last year, for example, there was $3.7 billion in unobligated funds from these royalties, advocates say. An earlier version of the bill created an incentive for more drilling, but that has been removed from the latest version.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-NC, supports the legislation, as does Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-NC, in the House. But no other NC representative has gotten behind the bill, nor has Republican Sen. Richard Burr.

We hope Burr and the entire North Carolina delegation will throw their support behind this rare bipartisan effort. North Carolina’s national parks – and the nation’s – need some shelter from the storm.

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