ZION NATIONAL PARK — Vince and Theary Boling and their 1-year-old daughter, Elianna, enjoyed the heavenly views in Zion National Park but had entirely different experiences in its two campgrounds.
The Grayton, California, family spent Saturday night in the recently refurbished Watchman Campground, with new bathrooms, pergolas and stone fire pits.
"We were blown away. What a nice campground," Vince Boling said.
They spent Sunday night in the neighboring South Campground, which has fallen into disrepair the past 60 years and has open drainage ditches running through the campsites.
"Again, we were surrounded by the same beauty. However, there's some safety concerns for her just around our campground. It's not as well maintained," Boling said. "We felt a little spoiled over there, but we're both going, 'Aren't they both government run? Why does one seem so dilapidated and one seem so nice?'"
The Bolings shared their observations with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Monday as he and Utah Republican Congressmen Rob Bishop, Chris Stewart and John Curtis toured the park for a firsthand look at some of its $65 million in backlogged maintenance needs.
Zinke, making his first trip to Zion, said visiting a national park should be a "five-star" experience.
"We can do a lot better, and we should do a lot better," he said.
In addition to holding a public discussion and touring the campgrounds, Zinke held private meetings with congressmen, local elected officials and park administrators. A protest zone cordoned off in front of the Zion Lodge went unused.
The National Park Service is reeling under a staggering $12.7 billion in deferred maintenance projects, including roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, restrooms and historic buildings in need of repair or replacement. In Utah, national parks and monuments have an estimated $266 million in unfunded upgrades.
Bishop is sponsoring a bipartisan measure to fund park maintenance using some of the royalties from energy development, including wind and solar, on public lands, money that now goes into the federal government's general fund.
The Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, endorsed earlier this month on a rare voice vote in the Natural Resources Committee that Bishop heads, has broad bipartisan support with 175 co-sponsors, including Utah's four House members.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., the committee's ranking leader, is a co-leader of the bill.
"That's a milestone," Zinke said of Grijalva and Bishop getting together.
The annual allocation would be capped at $1.3 billion over a five-year period to satisfy Democrats' concerns that the legislation not incentivize energy development, Bishop said.
Although the bill calls for "mandatory" spending on national parks and monuments, Zinke called it fiscally responsible.
Bishop called the plan a "conservative" approach that should appeal to proponents of limited government. He said it doesn't raise taxes and would be a reliable funding source.
"It doesn't grow government," he said. The money, Bishop said, would be "taken off the table so it could be put in a program that we should have been doing for decades."
Zinke said if the legislation "stays clean," he expects it to pass.
"Our parks tell a story. And the story we want to tell this season is that Congress and the administration work together to address our infrastructure needs," he said.
The Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, made up of 1,200 former and retired park service employees, said while it appreciates Zinke discussing the maintenance backlog, he should be focused on saving the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is set to expire Sunday without congressional action.
"Being a good steward of our public lands requires addressing both our critical maintenance needs and saving this essential bipartisan program that has shaped America’s unique outdoor heritage for generations. America needs Secretary Zinke to step up in support of LWCF before it's too late," coalition Chairman Phil Francis said in a statement.
Zinke said he supported the fund as a congressman and now as Interior secretary. He said Bishop's bill does not affect the fund.
Some 330 million people visited national parks nationwide last year, including 10.5 million in Utah, home to Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef. Officials expect those numbers to swell in the future.
"We have to be able to accommodate them, and to be able to accommodate them, it's going to take some money," said Stewart, whose district includes four of the state's five national parks.
Stewart has a bill to create a sixth national park in a small part of what is now Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The proposal came after President Donald Trump dramatically reduced the sizes of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bear Ears national monuments.
Another park, he said, would help spread visitors out to other areas, relieving congestion in Zion and elsewhere.
"Instead of being all packed into one place, let's give them six places to go visit," Stewart said, acknowledge it would take money to establish that park.
Zinke said "it's hard to justify building a new trail or a new park when we can't take care of what have today, so we have to focus on taking care of the property and being the best stewardship today.17 comments on this story
In Zion, roads, tunnels and parking areas account for 42 percent of the $65 million in maintenance needs, followed by 31 percent for buildings. Maintained landscapes, trail and trial bridges, and water and sewer systems make up the remainder.
"The longer we defer these projects, the more expensive they become," said Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh.
Zion has a $8 million rehabilitation project planned for the South Campground in 2022. It intends to use park entrance fees to cover the cost.