Rather than a valued icon of history, Peaceful Valley Ranch in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit had become an exhibit of the National Park System's aging infrastructure — a piece of the state's lore North Dakotans would hate to lose.
“It’s an iconic building and campus area,” said Park Superintendent Wendy Ross. “People love that old ranch feeling they get when they go into the South Unit.”
The ranch dates back to the former president Roosevelt’s time in North Dakota. And the dude ranch that once operated there was one of the first tourist attractions in the area. But lack of funding left the buildings deteriorating with peeling lead paint, roofs and siding in need of replacement. There's also a lack of accessibility for disabled visitors.
The National Park System spent more than $650 million on maintenance projects in Fiscal Year 2017, but the backlog, since 2010, still stands from $11 billion to $12 billion. The latest numbers reveal $11.6 billion in deferred maintenance in parks nationwide.
It took three years to put the project in line this past year for $3 million of the $4.3 million needed for its rehabilitation.
But urgency is mounting to pass legislation that could give the nation’s parks another source of money.
The Senate’s Restore Our Parks Act and accompanying House legislation would establish the five-year National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund, starting in Fiscal Year 2019, using unappropriated revenues from energy development on federal lands. Annual revenue to the fund would be capped at $1.3 billion.
The legislation was passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, of which Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., is a member, in early October.
“We’re hoping to get it passed (by the full Senate) in the lame duck,” Hoeven said. “We’ve got pretty good momentum.”
While Hoeven pointed to concerns about getting the legislation through both houses and to the president in the short time between elections and Christmas, heightened attention is being paid to this initiative and reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund program, which could result in a year-end federal lands legislation package.
“Everyone agrees that it’s a real need and a legitimate issue and the longer we wait the more it’s going to cost,” Hoeven said of deferred maintenance.
The effort also enjoys Trump administration support, with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke rallying behind it.
The next project on Ross’ wish list at Theodore Roosevelt National Park is repair of the River Bend Overlook, a Civilian Conservation Corps-era structure in the North Unit overlooking the Little Missouri River. The rough-stone structure requires rocks to be reset and mortar stabilized.
If the legislation is passed, 65 percent of the $1.3 billion annually would go to repair historic structures, such as the overlook, as well as visitor facilities, trails, water utility systems and other non-transportation-related assets.
Because Theodore Roosevelt National Park's roads are built on an erosive landscape, the state of the infrastructure is always on Ross' mind. For example, there's a large landslide in the North Unit's Cedar Canyon.
“It's very difficult to predict when a road will fail or need extensive repairs,” she said of the roads that make up 60 percent of the park's $49.3 million in deferred maintenance.
North Dakota mirrors the nation in this trend. Paved roads and structures make up $5.9 billion of system-wide deferred maintenance in 2017. Facilities are looking at $5.707 billion in needed expenditures. But roads spending will only account for 35 percent of the proposed fund.
Critics of the legislation also have said it relies too heavily on future energy revenues, rather than guaranteed funding.
But members of such groups as the National Parks Conservation Association say, based on past revenues, they have a high degree of confidence in the funding coming through. John Garder, the organization's senior director of budget and appropriations, said the Congressional Budget Office scores also have reaffirmed this.
"The Land and Water Conservation Fund and deferred maintenance both are incredibly important issues and have strong bipartisan support," Garder said. "With so many people pushing for it, leadership has to recognize it's something they really should move on. It would be a shame to have to start all over in the next Congress."
As national parks see increased recognition, and therefore more visitation, maintaining the infrastructure becomes paramount, said NPS' Midwest spokeswoman Alex Picavet.
More visitors means more recreation fees generated at the entrance of National Park System attractions. But more visitors also mean more strain to resources, Ross said.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park's visitation was up 2 percent over last year to 754,000 people, according to Ross. Three years ago it was at 580,000.
"It has leveled off a bit, but now we're in a totally different kind of class," she said of visitor numbers holding steady above 700,000.
Nearly $1 million was generated in entrance fees at North Dakota's lone national park last year, with $800,000 returned to the park and the rest going into a national pot of maintenance money. Of the $800,000, 55 percent went to deferred maintenance and the rest went to direct visitor benefits, Ross said.