National parks in Maryland need more than $345 million worth of maintenance work that has been neglected, according to the National Park Service — a problem that park advocates say is particularly urgent with the service planning to celebrate its centennial next year.
Nationally, the agency's backlog of deferred maintenance — work that has been postponed for more than a year — totals $11.5 billion. In Maryland, the sites with the greatest need include the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, with $106.7 million in work; Assateague Island National Seashore, with $22 million; and National Capital Parks-East, a group of parks in Maryland and the District of Columbia, with $166 million.
The National Park Service plans to celebrate its 100th anniversary next summer with a series of events.
"The irony is that at the current trajectory, visitors will be arriving to see facilities that are degraded and insufficient rangers to greet them to provide the kinds of programs that they expect," said John Garder, director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association.
His organization, which advocates for the parks, says the anniversary should galvanize lawmakers to invest in the system, which maintains more than 400 sites nationwide. The association wants Congress to grant President Barack Obama's budget request for the National Park Service — a $433 million increase over current spending.
The president's request would restore funding to pre-sequester levels.
Work on historic sites within the park system makes up a sizable portion of the backlog, at about $4.3 billion. In Maryland, nearly $209 million of the deferred maintenance is for historic projects.
At Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Baltimore, work has begun on a once-deferred $172,000 project to help preserve the original bricks of the fort, according to Vince Vaise, chief of interpretation for the park.
On a recent morning, workers used hammers and chisels to remove old mortar from between the centuries-old bricks. They were members of the Hands-On Preservation Experience Crew, a project of the National Trust for Historic Preservation that trains young people and military veterans in preservation trades.
Removing the mortar and replacing it will help prevent the bricks of the star-shaped fort — which was completed in 1802 — from deteriorating.
Historic structures "won't be here for future generations unless we do it now," said Petey Bender, an exhibit specialist with the Historic Preservation Training Center who is supervising the work at the fort.
Creative programs such as the HOPE Crew, founded in 2014, can help stretch preservation dollars while attracting the next generation of preservationists, said Monica Rhodes, who oversees the program. Members completed 18 projects last year, and 35 more are lined up this year.
"It hits a lot of points for the park service and I think ultimately results in cost savings for everyone," Rhodes said.
The maintenance backlog at Fort McHenry now stands at about $2.8 million, Vaise said.
Supporters of parks say they help support local communities' economies. In Maryland, park visitors spent more than $223 million last year, according to a National Park Service analysis earlier this year.
But budgets and staffing levels have been dwindling in recent years, even as visits increase.
At the C&O Canal, the number of annual visitors has grown from 4 million to 5 million since 2010, said park superintendent Kevin Brandt. The budget has decreased about 10 percent.
Meanwhile, the number of employees has shrunk from 94 to 74, Brandt said.
The park's deferred maintenance needs include $21 million to resurface the towpath by covering rocks and ruts that have been exposed by flood water and wear-and-tear.
The popular Great Allegheny Passage, a trail between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, connects with the C&O Canal towpath. Neglected towpaths are a common complaint among bicyclists, and a safety issue, Brandt said.
"It's not just about having a smooth ride," he said.
The C&O Can al is among the national parks in Maryland that increased fees on June 1. Rates at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg and Catoctin Mountain Park in Thurmont also went up.