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National Parks in Michigan need $50 million. A new law might help

Flickr user abarndweller

The ferry dock at North Manitou Island, part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, is in need of repairs from constant dredging. The park is strapped for millions to fix up buildings at its historic farm and village properties and rebuild an overlook on the park’s Scenic Drive. For years, the park hasn’t had the money to fix aging infrastructure.


“There’s no shortage of need,”’ said Tom Ulrich, the Deputy Superintendent at Sleeping Bear Dunes. 


The problem extends across the country’s National Parks, which face a $12 billion deficit to fix a massive network of dilapidated roads, buildings, trails, and toilets, dubbed “deferred maintenance,” according to the National Park Service. 


That was until this week, when President Donald Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act into law, which provides $6.5 billion over five years to address this backlog of repairs throughout park service sites. The funding is expected to generate more than 100,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Interior. 


The legislation also provides $900 million every year, in perpetuity, to a pot of moneydedicated to conservation and expanded access to public lands called the Land and Water Conservation Fund


“This is a very big deal,” Trump said, before signing the law Tuesday morning. 


The legislation doesn’t fix the chronic underfunding of the park service. It only covers about half the cost of the nation’s maintenance backlogs in the parks, but is still a major victory for conservation proponents. 


“It’s hard to overstate what a great huge role that the Great American Outdoors Act plays in fixing our national parks,” said Lynn McClure, the Midwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association. 


The organization has been involved in a decades-long effort to address the deferred maintenance backlogs at National Parks, where visitation has increased tremendously in recent years, but funding has remained relatively flat. The National Park Conservation Association has also lobbied to support the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Congress created in 1965, but has only been fully funded once since then. 


“Congress just made the largest investment in parks and public lands in this country in 50 years,” stressed McClure.


Why did this law pass now?


A combination of political pressure driven by the upcoming election, the economic fallout from the pandemic, and recent support for public lands aligned for the Great American Outdoors Act to pass. That’s according to Professor Linda Bilmes, a public policy expert at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, who recently wrote a book about the economics of the National Parks. 


“It was this funny alignment of Republican supporters of public lands in threatened races and the fact that the Senate is in play [in November] that created the ability for this bipartisan legislation to pass,” Bilmes said. 


Bilmes pointed out that President Trump does not have a strong track record of supporting conservation legislation. As recently as February, Trump proposed cutting nearly all of the discretionary funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. While earlier in his administration, he slashed the size of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase Escalante in Utah. Yet he ultimately supported this new legislation. 


“It is a very ironic situation that President Donald Trump is signing the most important conservation legislation in a generation,” she said. 


In Congress, Bilmes suspects recent stimulus packages made the investment in the Great American Outdoors Act more palatable.


“Basically the 9 billion dollars being spent on this bill doesn’t seem as big of a number as it did 6 months ago,” she said. 


And finally, a public made stir-crazy by lockdowns and social distancing is rife with enthusiasm for public lands.


“People are clamoring for the government to set aside money to protect these places,” said Bilmes. 


What does this mean for Michigan parks?


Credit National Parks Conservation Association
Paint flakes off a historic building at Sleeping Bear Dunes in 2017.

While the law provides a surge of funding the Parks service, the money has not yet been allocated. Ulrich of Sleeping Bear Dunes told IPR he didn’t know whether the legislation would address maintenance backlogs at the park.

“The details aren’t specific enough in the bill to say Sleeping Bear gets this much,” he said. 


At other National Park sites in Michigan, before the legislation passed, the agency approved a multi-million dollar project at Keweenaw National Historical Park in the Upper Peninsula to convert a historic building into a park visitor center, said McClure of the National Parks Conservation Association.


But addressing the rest of the state’s $50 million in maintenance repairs remains up in the air.


“There is no timeline that anyone is aware of,” admitted McClure. 

When that money does arrive — which McClure speculates could be as soon as the next fiscal year — it will be a huge boon to national parks across the country, and, hopefully, in Michigan too.

Lexi Krupp reports on science and the environment. Previously, she worked for Gimlet Media where she helped the Science Vs team distinguish what's fact from what's not. Her work has appeared in Audubon, Popular Science, VICE, and elsewhere.