Once considered America’s “crown jewels,” our national parks have become tarnished by monetary problems. Campgrounds are closed, buildings are in disrepair, roads are potholed and natural resources are degraded. Visitation is at near-record levels, yet the park service has reported backlogs for construction improvements and maintenance in excess of $6 billion. Something is surely amiss with the financial management of our parks.
The problem lies with Congress, which has control over park finances. As park expenses have increased, Congress has failed to appropriate the needed funds. At the same time, Congress has severely limited the ability of the parks to generate new revenues. Until recently, they could not raise fees, charge fees for new programs and services, or market their unique natural amenities. It was a no-win situation for the park and the public, and a far cry from the original vision for how our national parks were to operate.
In 1915, Stephen Mather was uniquely qualified to be the first director of the National Park Service because he was an astute businessman, as well as an avid naturalist. In Matherï¿½??s mind, direct control over park income was essential to park management, and to his mission to preserve the parksï¿½?? natural wonders for the enjoyment and benefit of the people. The early parks were developed on the premise that they would be self-supporting and retain their earned revenues. By 1918, five parks had sufficient earning capacity to cover their own costs.
This common sense approach was soon subverted by politics when legislation was passed in 1918 mandating that all park revenues be turned over to the general treasury. Any connection between park revenues and expenditures was severed. From that point on, the parks were tied to congressional appropriations and hopes for self-sufficiency were extinguished.
In recent years, the increasing gap between expenses and appropriations has meant deteriorating facilities and eroding natural resources. The parksï¿½?? very mission is in jeopardy. However, in 1995 Congress authorized a pilot program allowing designated parks to charge higher entrance fees and, more importantly, keep 80 percent of the additional revenues they earn. And in 1994, parks were granted permission to charge for special use permits and keep the fees. With this incentive, Yellowstone introduced a modest fishing fee of $5 for a seven-day permit. This single fee raised more than $400,000 in one year. The new fee programs have generated revenues equivalent to more than 10 percent of the entire National Park Service operating budget.
New Hampshire and Vermont state parks are already self-supporting, and a growing number of others are headed in that direction. An entrepreneurial spirit has taken hold in Texas, South Dakota, and Arkansas. Park managers have developed a myriad of new programs, activities and events for which they charge affordable fees. The response has been positive. Visitation has increased, and so have revenues.
National parks could move in the same direction. Freed from the vagaries of the appropriations process and encumbering legislation, national parks could be restored to Matherï¿½??s earlier vision of financially healthy and self-supporting parks.
For more information on parks, see “Back to the Future to Save Our Parks,” PERC Policy Series PS-10 and “A Look at State Parks”, both by PERC associates Donald R. Leal and Holly Lippke Fretwell.