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National Park Service studies pile up as Congress orders a review of potential sites

Luke Runyon
/
KUNC and Harvest Public Media

The National Park Service is behind on studying 28 potential sites to add to its system, and two of them are in the Mountain West.

The agency revealed the extent of its backlog in completing the studies of potential new NP S units ordered by Congress during a Senate hearing last fall . U nder consi deration are every thing from trails to heritage areas to wild and scenic rivers. The studies – which cost an average of $350,000 and are supposed to be completed withinthree fiscal years – assess a site's national significance and the feasibility of adding it to the National Park System. Some sites have already been determined as NPS sites and require a study to help plan it out while others undergo studies to determine whether they even quali f y for NPS status.

“The list is sort of a backlog by nature,” said Kristen Brengel, the senior vice president of government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association. “These studies simply can't be done overnight. Y ou can't just go out to a site and look at it and determine whether it's nationally significant or feasible. These studies require time to do research.”

A ccor ding to repo rting from E&E News , in December alone Congress ordered the NPS to study 11 potential new sites. Those orders came shortly after the NP S completed two studies, including one in October o n Camp Amache in Colorado . Th at s tudy c ame nearly seven months after President Joe Biden signed a bill adding the former Japanese internment camp to the NPS.

In Colorado, the Dearfield Homestead – a monu ment to the state's largest Black homesteading settlement – was among the sites approved for study in December. But the study is low on NPS's growing list, according to Brengel.

Robert Brunswig, a professor at the University of Northern Colorado and program field director for the Dearfield Archaeology Field Project, said in an email that he is “confident” that the NPS study will be positive and tha t Dearfield will become a national historic site by 2026 or 2027. In the meantime, the team at Dearfield is app lying for grants to convert their buildings into museum facilities i n prep aration for the s ite' s anticipated entry into the NPS sys tem .

In Utah, Golden Spike is already a national historic al park . In 2019, ho wever, Congress asked the NPS to review o ther pot ential site s lik e Gold en Spik e along the Transcontinental Railroad. An agency spokesperson said that study is “in progress and the NPS continues to work toward its completion,” but declined an interview request by the Mountain West News Bureau.

In a report to Congress last year, the Congressional Research Service attributed the backlog at the NPS – which has long been understaffed and underfunded – to "the large number of studies authorized by Congress and the extent of available resources."

Brengel said the studies re quir e the months and years NPS staffers dedicate to them.

It's a painstaking operation to do it, but that's how serious the Park Service takes its job,” she said. “They want to make sure that this is something the public is going to really embrace.”

Brengel’s organization recently conducted a poll and found that 80% of Americans support the U.S. government conserving lands and waters, with 52% of people strongly supporting it from both sides of the political aisle.

“Parks are an American value – they're not just places,” Brengel said. “And the fact that we believe that conserving more lands, conserving more forests is an important part of who we are as a country —t hat's a really important statement to make.”

She encouraged people to call on members of Congress to support N PS sites and to push for these studies to be completed.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Emma VandenEinde