House Natural Resources Committee

Federal Lands Subcommittee Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee

National Park Service’s Deferred Maintenance Backlog: Perspectives from the Government Accountability Office and the Inspector General

1324 Longworth
Wed, 10 Jan 2024 15:15:00 GMT

On Wednesday, January 10, 2024, at 10:15 a.m., in room 1324 Longworth House Office Building, the Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and the Subcommittee on Federal Lands will hold a joint oversight hearing titled “National Park Service’s Deferred Maintenance Backlog: Perspectives from the Government Accountability Office and the Inspector General.”

Hearing memo Witnesses:
  • Cardell Johnson, Director, Natural Resources and Environment, Government Accountability Office
  • Mark Greenblatt, Inspector General, Department of the Interior

The National Park Service (NPS) manages 428 individual units across 85 million acres. There are many challenges facing NPS, with none more pressing than the $22.3 billion deferred maintenance backlog. For decades, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has identified deferred maintenance as a critical problem for federal land management agencies like NPS, prompting the agency to add federal real property to its “High Risk List” in 2003.3 Unlike routine maintenance, deferred maintenance and repairs are “maintenance and repairs that were not performed when they should have been or were scheduled to be and which are put off or delayed for a future period.” A confluence of factors contributed to the growing deferred maintenance backlog, including aging infrastructure, adjustments in the methodology for calculating deferred maintenance, inflation, supply chain issues, consistently high visitation, and the acquisition of new land or creation of new units for NPS to manage. The failure to keep up with maintenance presents risks to NPS resources, diminishes visitor enjoyment, and creates safety hazards for the public. This means that parks are often replete with crumbling trails, dilapidated visitor centers and campgrounds, leaking wastewater systems, and closed off access points or recreation sites. As the NPS maintenance backlog continued to steadily rise through the 2010s, reaching $12.7 billion by the end of fiscal year (FY) 2019, a growing coalition of NPS stakeholders began to push for Congress to provide a solution.6 Administrations of both parties argued that increased funding was vital to decrease NPS’s deferred maintenance backlog, with NPS testifying before Congress that “funding will help substantially reduce the NPS $11.6 billion deferred maintenance backlog.” In August 2020, Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA). GAOA established a new, mandatory fund known as the “National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund” (LRF) to address the deferred maintenance needs of NPS and four other land management agencies. The LRF is funded through 50 percent of the unobligated or “miscellaneous” revenues deposited into the U.S. Treasury from all forms of energy development (oil, gas, coal, and alternative or renewable energy), up to $1.9 billion a year for five years ($9.5 billion total). 10 Of the amounts deposited in the LRF each year, NPS receives a 70 percent share ($1.33 billion). In addition to the LRF, NPS receives billions of dollars in funding to address deferred maintenance through regular appropriations and retained recreation fees.

Since GAOA’s passage, the LRF has not only failed to reduce NPS’s deferred maintenance backlog, but the backlog has increased by an astounding $9.6 billion. While all five agencies that receive GAOA funding have seen increases in deferred maintenance, no agency’s backlog has increased at the scale of the NPS backlog. After receiving two full years of GAOA funding totaling $2.66 billion, NPS’s backlog rose from $12.7 billion at the end of FY 2019 to $22.3 billion at the end of FY 2022.

In response to questions about how the backlog could increase at such an alarming rate despite billions of dollars in taxpayer funding being allocated to address this problem, NPS largely attributed this increase to changes in its methodology for calculating deferred maintenance. According to the agency, prior to FY 2019, the agency only included construction costs in its estimates of deferred maintenance.15 The agency decided to change this methodology after a review initiated in September 2017 (known as “Project revAMP”) found “data inaccuracy and inconsistency and laborious and costly processes.” Starting in FY 2019, cost estimates were expanded to “[align] with contemporary industry standards” and include design, compliance, and construction and project management.17 NPS also transitioned away from calculating deferred maintenance by “using the summation of work order costs,” which were inherently inconsistent and unreliable, to a more comprehensive system. In its FY 2024 budget justification, NPS elaborated that this system will consist of three components: (1) Parametric condition assessments (PCA) for industry standard assets; (2) Federal Highways Administration assessments for infrastructure, such as paved roads, parking lots, bridges and tunnels; and (3) work orders for concessions-occupied assets and non-industry standard assets. This methodology change was partially implemented starting in FY 2022 and is expected to be fully implemented by FY 2024 (September 30th of this year). It is important to note that these methodology changes and subsequent NPS explanations have created significant confusion about the true nature of NPS’s backlog. For example, in 2022 the GAO said that “Interior officials explained that an $8.8 billion increase in deferred maintenance and repairs from fiscal year 2020 through fiscal year 2021 was in part the result of the addition of design, compliance, and construction management costs to estimates at the National Park Service.” However, the backlog increased by $7.43 billion between these years, leaving an unexplained $1.4 billion gap. Adding to this confusion, this is also the year that NPS applied a blanket 35 percent markup to its estimates, which alone increased the backlog by $3.7 billion. Further, while a methodology change could explain a portion of the increase in backlog, it does not explain the full extent of the backlog increase. The largest increase in the NPS backlog, from $14.37 billion in 2020, the year GAOA was passed, to $21.8 billion in FY 2021, occurred the year before the new methodology was put into place. Between FY 2021 and FY 2022, the year the agency implemented its methodology change, the backlog only increased by $500 million.

In September 2023, DOI’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report entitled “The National Park Service Faces Challenges in Managing Its Deferred Maintenance.” The OIG found serious discrepancies with NPS’s reporting and tracking of deferred maintenance that “compromise the NPS’ ability to achieve its mission, manage its deferred maintenance, and fulfill its responsibility to ensure the safety of visitors and NPS staff.” In particular, the report found that NPS continues to rely on inaccurate and incomplete data for its deferred maintenance, inappropriately inflated its backlog by 35 percent without sufficient justification, and did not consistently monitor and complete critical Health, Life, and Safety (HLS) work orders. The OIG made eight recommendations to NPS to address these concerns, two of which remain open: (1) developing and implementing policies to more appropriately estimate the cost of deferred maintenance projects and (2) including more accurate estimates for all existing and future work orders. One of the most concerning findings of the OIG is that NPS, as previously mentioned, applied a blanket 35 percent markup to all deferred maintenance projects in 2021, increasing the total backlog by $3.7 billion, without sufficient methodology to support this markup. This markup consisted of increases of 5 percent for compliance, 17 percent for design, 8 percent for construction management, and 5 percent for project management. The OIG reported that while this is consistent with methodology the Federal Highway Administration uses for transportation projects, NPS officials could not provide a rationale or documentation for why it was appropriate to apply this methodology to all deferred maintenance projects, including non-transportation projects. The OIG found that the DOI policy NPS did cite as justification for this “standard” markup “has no reference to a standard markup of 35 percent.” The OIG found that this application may lead to further overestimations of NPS’s backlog, as the 35 percent markup could be duplicative with other markups applied by the agency. Further, the OIG found that this application was inappropriate because it assumed all deferred maintenance would be completed by outside contractors, when a significant portion is completed by NPS staff at a lower cost.

The OIG specifically found that NPS inconsistently entered deferred maintenance work orders in its tracking system (the Facility Management Software System, or FMSS), leading to hundreds of thousands of work orders that were outdated, inaccurate, and were not being properly monitored. The OIG identified 214,000 work orders that were not correctly classified as deferred maintenance, leading overall deferred maintenance estimates to be off by $2.6 billion. The OIG also found that NPS did not properly close out completed work orders, and identified 3,667 open deferred maintenance work orders, totaling $364 million, that had been completed but were still being counted towards the backlog total.