As the recent government shutdown so very aptly demonstrated, the care for and conservation of many of our country’s natural treasures are currently tied to the caprice of national politics, and even worse, the federal government is constantly acquiring more land while the parks that they already own and operate are subjected to budgetary shortfalls that often result in both recreational restrictions and environmental degradation. These sites need tending, and it is an irresponsible, damn shame that we have an ever-mounting deferred maintenance backlog of more than $11 billion dollars but Congress and the executive branch continue to bring still more swaths of land under bureaucratic control through the Land and Water Conservation Fund and various amendments.

We now have more than 400 national parks on the registrar, and while adding still more makes for a great one-time ribbon-cutting ceremony, there are too many opportunities for waste and neglect to keep this practice up. Repubican Sen. Tom Coburn has been hitting this theme for awhile now, and his office is out with a report detailing some of the opportunity costs associated with it, via Fox News:

His report documents a federal agency that is top heavy with bureaucracy and management, but badly mangles its spending priorities.

“This is an agency that spends $650 million a year administering a $2.6 billion budget,” says Coburn — a ratio he calls, “outlandish.” …

“Congress continues to add things – ‘parks’ – that aren’t significant in terms of national interest in a declining budget.  What we have is our most treasured resources, the big parks, with maintenance backlogs in excess of $2 billion.”

The report catalogues a litany of unfilled potholes, crumbling stairs and deteriorating infrastructure in many of the nation’s most visited national parks. “Look at the Grand Canyon,” says Coburn.  “They’re not even replacing water lines that are 50 years old. They can’t even flush the toilets, because they’re not doing the critical maintenance that’s needed.”

He adds, “If you continue to add federal land and federal parks, what you are going to do is make this problem worse.”

The worst part of it is that, while environmentalists and bureaucrats are always eager to add land to the whimsical budgetary rolls of big government, there are other and much better options for conserving lands for public use. State parks and private-public partnerships have a much better record of both stewardship and fiscal responsibility, and private leasing especially often tends to act as a revenue-generator rather than the drain on government coffers. It doesn’t have to be this way.