He may never get credit from environmentalists, but President Trump is building a unique conservation legacy by focusing on the restoration and rehabilitation of America’s majestic yet long-neglected national parks.
The Interior Department announced last week $256 million in funding for infrastructure projects at 22 national parks, including the Great Smoky Mountains, Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone, marking another step toward the goal of wiping out a stubborn $11.6 billion maintenance backlog.
While Mr. Trump, a native New Yorker who built a real estate empire with luxury hotels and resorts, isn’t necessarily known for communing with nature, his decision to prioritize repairs to the national park system does jibe with his appreciation for grandeur and insistence on high-quality surroundings.
“The President is a builder, he loves to build and he loves our National Parks, so it is a natural fit that the Administration is dedicating so much attention to rebuilding our aging parks infrastructure,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Wednesday in a written statement.
Projects covered by the funding include overhauling the visitor center at Mount Rushmore, rehabilitating wastewater systems at Yellowstone and the Great Smoky Mountains national parks, and repairing flood damage to the Scotty’s Castle visitor center in Death Valley National Park.
Closer to Washington, $18.2 million has been designated to repair the Arlington Memorial Bridge on the George Washington Memorial Parkway and $21.4 million to restore the Thomas Jefferson Memorial roof and portico at the National Mall and Memorial Parks.
Projects are in the works to make the features more accessible to tourists, which will have a “tangible effect on a person’s experience when visiting our nation’s parks,” Mr. Zinke said.
“It’s another step toward prioritizing infrastructure because it is an investment that bolsters local economies and gateway communities,” he said. “And it is another step in prioritizing access for all Americans to our public lands.”
That commitment to revitalizing the national parks has nonetheless failed to impress liberals locked in a perpetual state of battle with the Trump administration over environmental issues.
Matt Lee-Ashley, a former Obama administration official and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, suggested that Mr. Trump may be too committed to the national parks.
“The Trump administration seems solely focused on the national parks at the expense of investments in the management of other public lands that Americans also use frequently, like national forests,” Mr. Lee-Ashley said in an email.
Since 2010, the National Park Service has recorded an $11 billion to $12 billion backlog of deferred maintenance projects, even though the number of annual visitors to the 417 properties swelled by 12 percent over the past decade to 330 million.
With an annual National Park Service budget of about $3 billion, however, “you simply can’t take care of all of these items,” said agency spokesman Jeremy Barnum. “This will address some of the higher-priority projects at the national parks.”
Mr. Zinke also has championed a bipartisan bill introduced in March that would allocate up to $18 billion for a national park restoration fund built by revenue from energy production on federal lands and waters.
Refusal to give Trump credit
Nobody has waited longer for park-related funding than the denizens of Swain County, North Carolina, who saw the North Shore Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park flooded when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president.
Mr. Zinke drew plaudits by announcing that the county would be reimbursed $35.2 million for reconstructing the 30-mile road after it was washed away during a federal dam project in the 1940s.
“The citizens of Swain County have waited years for the federal government to uphold their promise, and on behalf of North Carolina and Swain County I thank [Mr. Zinke] for making good on that promise,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, North Carolina Republican.
Added Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican: “Since he took office last year, President Trump’s administration has showed an unparalleled commitment to making this situation right.”
The Republican praise has contrasted sharply with the criticism on the left.
Rather than credit the Trump administration, environmentalists have argued that Congress was responsible for appropriating the funding and charged Mr. Zinke with “trying to take credit for Congress doing its job,” said Aaron Weiss, spokesman for the Center for Western Priorities.
John Garder, senior director of budget and appropriations at the National Parks Conservation Association, mentioned neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Zinke in his statement praising the effort to tackle the maintenance backlog.
“We’re pleased that Congress provided the funding to make these projects possible,” said Mr. Garder. “Much more needs to be done, as these are just a handful of the many park repair projects that are long overdue, and that’s why Congress must work together to pass legislation to dedicate funding to the park service deferred maintenance backlog.”
Environmentalists have accused Mr. Zinke of giving a home-state advantage to Montana by prioritizing $12 million for reconstruction of Glacier National Park’s Sperry Chalet, which was consumed by wildfire last year.
“Rebuilding the Sperry Chalet is surely important, but it’s hard to see how it’s more urgent than fixing the drinking water system in the Grand Canyon,” said Mr. Lee-Ashley. “It looks like Secretary Zinke may be rearranging the priority of maintenance needs in the national parks to score some political points back home.”
Montanans weren’t complaining.
“I appreciate Secretary Zinke putting Montana first and prioritizing the rebuilding of this Glacier icon,” Rep. Greg Gianforte, Montana Republican, said in a statement.
Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican, cheered the allocation of $7.5 million for the Falls Creek Hydro Project in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a renewable-energy project that takes advantage of the waterfalls.
“I am grateful that the Trump administration has the common sense to recognize that hydro is a renewable resource, just like solar and wind,” Mr. Young said. “Southeast Alaska is rich with hydro potential, and there is no reason federal land should be exempt from the expansion of this source of renewable energy.”