SALT LAKE CITY — A new report issued by a group promoting "free market environmentalism" said the national park system will observe its 100th anniversary this year with a nearly $12 billion backlog of needed maintenance — something it says seven key strategies would help reduce.

Consider:

  • A leaky wastewater system dumped raw sewage into the streams in Yosemite.
  • Frequent ruptures in an 83-year-old pipeline system at the Grand Canyon causes water shortages and facility closures.
  • And nearly half the roads in national parks are in fair or poor condition.

The Property and Environmental Research Center founded 35 years ago in Bozeman, Montana, issued "Breaking the Backlog," detailing deferred maintenance projects that are five times higher than the National Park Service's budget.

Over the past 10 years, Congress has funded 4 percent of the agency's total backlog, while discretionary spending to address the problem has decreased 40 percent.

The group founded on property rights principles and markets said it is unrealistic to expect Congress to fix existing problems at national parks like roads, campgrounds, wastewater treatment systems or failing bridges because conserving new land has broader appeal and more political punch.

The federal government, however, should stop acquiring land for national parks and instead prioritize taking care of the land it already has, the group says.

"By focusing on land acquisition, limited conservation dollars are spent at the expense of properly maintaining existing lands," the report notes. "Moreover, adding more public lands can exacerbate the problem because the federal government incurs even more liabilities, often with little or no means of maintaining the additional lands."

The group recommends reforming the Land and Water Conservation Fund — which it said has allocated $100 million to acquire 100,000 acres from 2011-2014 — and instead dedicate the federal dollars to maintenance at existing parks.

That idea is likely to draw cries of protest.

Multiple key environmental organizations across the country consider the fund's ability to facilitate the federal government's acquisition of more public lands sacrosanct, skewering Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, when he proposed reforms last year.

Paul Wilkins, chief conservation officer for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a coalition of sportsmen's organizations, said there is no need to come up with new strategies to address the maintenance backlog at national parks.

"I think the (Property and Environmental Research Center) report twists itself in knots to be an apologist for Congress," Wilkins said. "The answer to the National Park Service backlog is not robbed from some other program; it is Congress. Fund the maintenance backlog."

But the report notes that despite repeated pleas by the park service to Congress to address the backlog, any money appropriated for the program has been small.

Policymakers and park rangers need an expanded range of creative options to tackle the problem, including reforms that would make parks more self-sufficient and therefore less reliant on Congress, the report said.

"As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial this year, it is clear the current approach to addressing the backlog is not working," the report states.

Other recommendations in the report include:

  • Reauthorize the law — set to expire in 2017 — that allows parks to retain fees, which funded more than 1,500 projects of which about half addressed maintenance projects and facility improvements.
  • Allow park managers to set their own fees without approval from Congress.
  • Outsource routine park operations to the private sector while maintaining public ownership and oversight.

The report also recommends that the federal government dispose of unnecessary federal lands and use the revenue to address the backlog.

The Property and Environmental Research Center stresses it is not talking about "crown jewels," but lands that are scattered, isolated tracts that are difficult to manage or lands acquired for a specific purpose but are no longer needed.

Some of the lands, it adds, are located in the urban interface and have high value, pointing to the Bureau of Land Management's disposal of small parcels of land in suburban Phoenix and Las Vegas that in turn generated millions in revenue.

"There is little or no disagreement on this simple fact: Under certain conditions, the public interest is better served by allowing the federal government to sell unneeded lands and use the revenues to provide better protections for other public lands," the report said.

Other recommendations include expanding the flexibility of the park service to explore and implement public-private partnerships to fix the maintenance backlog.

Finally, the center said if any new parks are added to the system, Congress should implement a franchising system in which the parks could be established without requiring full federal management or funding.

Under such a system, parks would be owned and managed by private entities under standards established by the National Park Service. The park service would provide a license for the entities to operate under the park "brand" and monitor private managers to ensure the lands are managed in adherence to the service's mission.

That management style is already happening to a degree, the report states, listing the Tallgrass Prairie Reserve in Kansas as an example. Jointly managed by the park service and The Nature Conservancy, only 30 acres of the nearly 11,000 acres is actually owned by the federal government.

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Another effort involves the creation of a 3.5 million wildlife reserve in Montana by a private, nonprofit conservation group that has been using private funds from donations to create what will be the largest wildlife reserve in the contiguous United States.

"Allowing private landowners to leverage the national park brand can help protect areas of national significance without increasing the financial responsibilities of the National Park Service or expanding federal landholdings," the report said. "A franchise model is a low-cost way for the National Park Service to advance its mission without expanding its budget, landholdings or maintenance liabilities."

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