Just as outdoor enthusiasts enjoy federal lands, recreational boaters need access to federal waters. Access, however, can be threatened due to aging marina infrastructure, lack of funds for ramp and dock maintenance, or government will. The Department of Interior oversees about one-fifth of the nation’s land, including the national parks. Boat Owners Association of The United States (BoatUS) was eager to sit down with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke yesterday at an event in Washington to discuss his agency’s support for maintaining boating infrastructure and growing access to federal waters.

The Secretary’s interview with BoatUS was part of a coalition of outdoor recreation industry associations that met with him to highlight the economic importance of outdoor products and the enjoyment they bring American families. These include boats, recreational vehicles, off-road vehicles, and camping, fishing and hunting gear that generate $887 billion per year in economic activity and provide an estimated 7.6 million direct jobs.

As the nation’s largest advocacy, services and safety group, BoatUS supports the recreational boating industry and believes improvements to federal boating-access sites and addressing the Department of Interior’s deferred maintenance backlog will improve recreational boating opportunities for the nation’s 11.8 million boat owners.

In speaking to BoatUS, Secretary Zinke made clear his advocacy for expanded access to federal public lands and waters and improving infrastructure at many of the aging facilities. “Pressure to use our public lands will continue to grow, and many of our facilities consist of Eisenhower-era infrastructure,” Zinke said. “We have a $11.5 billion maintenance and repair backlog at our public parks. We need to look at reinvesting in our public lands.”

Speaking on the boating-access issue, Secretary Zinke said he’s “looking to not only maintain it, but enhance it. … Public access via water provides an opportunity for improving infrastructure, from maintaining moorings to repairing docks. It’s a field where there can be an enormous amount of improvement.”

He promised, “Fixing the backlog of maintenance items will be a priority in upcoming budgets. … We are going to catch up on infrastructure, restore trust and show Americans we can be good stewards of our public lands. Revenue from user fees, including contracts with private concessionaires should offset the cost of maintaining facilities. If we work together, everybody wins.”

The Department of Interior will also look at ways to improve the experience at parks, noting Wi-Fi access and air-conditioned buildings are amenities that today’s park visitors ask for. “We’re going to adapt to what Americans want. Our citizens deserve the best uses of our public lands,” he said. “In the past, the answer has been ‘no.’ Our answer should be, ‘How do we get to yes?’”

The Secretary also used the day’s events to announce the formation of an advisory committee consisting of outdoor-industry members assigned to nurture public-private partnerships that he believes can provide the resources to make federal parks “a five-star experience” to enjoy. He stressed, “This is not privatizing our national parks. No one is more passionate about our public lands, and I am adamant against selling our public lands.”

In a related boating topic, Secretary Zinke, whose wife owns a 38-foot powerboat, also noted that boating presents “a unique challenge” when it comes to invasive species, which he said is “a real problem” but stressed the need for the right strategies to combat the threat.

Said BoatUS Manager of Government Affairs David Kennedy, “Boaters need well-maintained, safe and modern boating amenities in good condition. We look forward to the Secretary’s help to address these needs with public-private partnerships. This is not the first time our parks have needed private investment — some of the first such partnerships in national parks were the early and now historic lodges built by the railroads. Well-managed access can be good for boaters, the federal government and for local economies. If you build it, they do come.”