- - Wednesday, March 21, 2018

World-class infrastructure is the pride of a prosperous nation. America is the greatest country this world has ever known — she deserves the greatest infrastructure. Unfortunately, our roads, bridges and tunnels have been neglected due to years of inaction. Our public lands have suffered a similar fate. As secretary of the Interior and chief steward of our public lands, I inherited a maintenance backlog of more than $11 billion in our national parks alone.

While leaders have said the right things on infrastructure in the past, President Donald Trump is a man of action. In his first year in office, he has kept his promises to the American people by cutting taxes, nominating judges and slashing job-killing regulations. And with his proposed 2019 budget, the president is again keeping another promise — to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure.

President Trump is a builder, and as the son of a plumber myself, I’m excited to begin working with him on restoring the greatness of America’s treasures. The president’s budget request for 2019 includes a legislative proposal for a Public Lands Infrastructure Fund, which would address the deferred-maintenance backlog by using funds generated from federal energy leasing and development activities to invest up to $18 billion over 10 years in national parks, wildlife refuges and Bureau of Indian Education (BIE)-funded schools.

Infrastructure is an investment in our nation. A recent study from the Fish and Wildlife Service indicates that for every dollar spent on construction, maintenance and repair contracts in the National Wildlife Refuge System, three times the economic activity is generated. According to the preliminary statistics by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, outdoor recreation, much of it occurring on our public lands, accounted for 2.0 percent of the U.S. economy, or $373.7 billion, in 2016.

Our National Park System is the envy of the world. In 2017, more than 330 million people visited them, supporting local economies across the country. Having grown up next to Glacier National Park, I believe all Americans should have the opportunity to share in the majesty of our national parks. But without a significant investment in maintenance to go along with our record visitor totals, the visitor experience is in jeopardy.

In 2017, the National Park Service’s backlog of deferred maintenance increased to $11.6 billion. At Grand Canyon National Park, visitors receive water from an obsolete pipeline that has broken more than 80 times since 2010, forcing emergency rationing and costing millions of dollars to fix over and over again. At the Statue of Liberty National Monument, $34.45 million is needed to stabilize the Ellis Island Seawall, which protects Ellis Island from erosion of wave action. These are just some of many examples of the consequences of our maintenance backlog across the National Park System.

Within our National Wildlife Refuge System, a $1.2 billion maintenance backlog is betraying our commitment to wildlife, to sportsmen and women, and to conservation. Taking care of our 566 wildlife refuges is a necessary component of proper land stewardship and helps ensure that the American public has continued opportunities to hunt, fish, bird and participate in other outdoor recreation opportunities. Infrastructure investments in refuge roads, bridges and buildings improve visitor services, improve water and habitat quality, and lead to healthier herds and flocks, making those enhanced opportunities a real benefit to the public.

Finally, as secretary of the Interior, I am responsible for the education of 47,000 American Indian students. Native American kids deserve a world-class education, and the Department needs to live up to its treaty obligations.

Many schools are structurally unsound, lack basic features like functional doors and windows, or are infested with mold. This is heartbreaking and unacceptable, as is the lack of modern infrastructure investment at schools located in isolated areas. As part of our push to rebuild our American infrastructure, we will fight to rebuild our BIE schools, which suffer from a $634 million maintenance backlog for education facilities.

Rebuilding our parks, wildlife refuges and BIE schools is not a Republican or Democrat issue — it’s an American issue. Having served in Congress, I know there are lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who share President Trump’s vision. Public land is “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People,” as the Roosevelt Arch in Yellowstone National Park so proudly proclaims. Together, we will restore the American tradition of a sturdy foundation, upon which we will construct our shared future.

Ryan K. Zinke is the 52nd Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. A fifth-generation Montanan and former Member of Congress, Mr. Zinke is the first U.S. Navy SEAL officer to serve as a cabinet secretary.

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