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Fixing up state’s national parks will take a lot of work

An asphalt trail leads to the natural entrance at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. (Robert Cross/Chicago Tribune)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The maintenance backlog at Carlsbad Caverns National Park is close to $40 million, but it doesn’t involve work on the elevators as it has in recent years.

It instead is related to paving three miles of trail inside the cavern. Superintendent Doug Neighbor concedes that the project is expected to be costly.

The park’s needs make up almost a third of the $121 million backlog at New Mexico’s national parks and monuments, according to the National Park Service.

“We’re not the only ones with a very large price tag,” Neighbor told the Journal, mentioning there were other parks in the region with a larger backlog.

He calls the work the park needs “very technical” and says it “would fit within the Great American Outdoors Act” funding.

The legislation, which is expected to pass the U.S. House and be signed by President Donald Trump this month, would provide $1.9 billion a year for five years to address deferred maintenance at national parks, monuments, refuges and other federal lands.

A park ranger, lower right, shines her flashlight onto a boulder where bat guano miners scorched it to leave black marks so they could find their way out of Carlsbad Caverns early in the 20th century. (Jake Schoellkopf/Albuquerque Journal)

“This bill puts down a substantial payment toward the maintenance backlog facing our public lands and is the most significant commitment to maintaining our public lands ever made by Congress,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said during a virtual roundtable about the bill.

For Carlsbad Caverns, the commitment would be welcome. Neighbor said the park intends to strip the trail of the current surface of asphalt and epoxy put in years ago.

“Those types of things probably shouldn’t be in a cave because they can leach out with petroleum products and other things,” he said.

The surface would be replaced by concrete, which is similar to the composition of the limestone in the cave, Neighbor said.

Conduits would also be laid down inside the trail with communication receivers placed for visitor safety and ranger communication.

Neighbor said the park is looking at replacing about five miles of stainless steel handrails along the trail, as well as adding and replacing walls that collect lint from visitors’ clothing.

Wind formed these ripples of gypsum sand at White Sands National Park. (Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal)

The maintenance needs at White Sands National Park may seem modest by comparison. The park system listed deferred maintenance at a little more than $3 million in fiscal 2018, but park Superintendent Marie Sauter said the work is needed because more visitors are coming since it was upgraded to national park status in December.

“We felt we were on track to break records for visitation this year before the (COVID-19) pandemic,” she said.

She said renovation work is needed at the visitor center and restrooms at the park. Both date to the 1930s and “are adobe buildings, which are typical classic construction here in New Mexico.”

“Our restrooms were designed and built in the 1930s to function several decades out and meet the needs of visitation,” Sauter said.

But the restrooms were designed for tens of thousands of visitors per year, not the hundreds of thousands now visiting the park in southeastern New Mexico.

“We’ve got a point where we are putting Band-Aids on the restroom facilities and are looking for opportunities to build new, modern, up-to-date restrooms and comfort stations that will meet the needs of quite expanded visitation,” Sauter said.

Drainage work at the visitor center would divert water away from the building. Work on the electrical system and roofing is planned.

“We’re still processing the cost to do all of this work and renovation, including adding an upgraded IT system, communication system so we can add some great features for our visitors like wireless opportunities,” Sauter said.

The park isn’t able to offer wireless service in the visitor center now because of the thick adobe walls, she said.

Maintenance needs aren’t limited to the two national parks.

Aaron Adams, foreground, and National Park Service archaeologist Roger Moore inspect a room in the Pueblo Bonito ruins at Chaco Canyon, in northwestern New Mexico, in November 2016. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“El Malpais National Monument’s temporary visitor center could be replaced with a permanent structure,” said Kevin Dahl, senior program manager for the Southwestern region of the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocate for the park system. “Archaeological sites at Bandelier and Chaco Canyon could receive much-needed stabilization and protection.”

The parks system listed the backlog for Chaco Culture National Historical Park at more than $18 million and Bandelier National Monument at more than $14 million.

“At Chaco Canyon, there’s $5 million for paved roads, $3.6 million to stabilize and protect archaeological sites, $3 million for a building update, also a million dollars needed for the wastewater treatment plant,” Dahl said.

“These are the places that need to be fixed up. Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands, Chaco, Gila Cliff Dwellings and Bandelier,” Udall said. “Expanding, restoring and maintaining our public lands can be a massive job creator.”

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