During a Quiet National Park Week, Recreationists Still Have a Role to Play

When budgets get tight, park funding usually gets squeezed. Park users can provide relief.

Normally, there would be free entry to all national parks today to mark the start of National Park Week. Like so many aspects of normal life, however, the coronavirus pandemic turned that plan on its head.

Most parks remain closed as one of countless social distancing measures aimed at curbing transmission of Covid-19. As thousands of Americans fight a novel and in some cases life-threatening disease, and millions more struggle with the economic repercussions of the lockdowns aimed at containing the virus, the spate of national park closures is comparatively a non-story.

Eventually, however, we will turn our minds back to more routine aspects of life—and be able to once again enjoy views from scenic overlooks in or hikes through a national park. While we just don’t know when that time will come, we can start to prepare now for the upcoming funding challenges our parks and other public recreation lands will likely face. We’ll need creative solutions, and many of them should look beyond government appropriations and to recreationists themselves.

A big part of the fiscal response to the virus has been the $2 trillion economic relief package passed in late March, equal to roughly half of the federal government’s annual budget. Meanwhile, revenues to state and local governments are plunging as many economic and social activities have come to a halt.

Governments at all levels will be affected by dwindling revenues from the pandemic fallout, and parks cannot escape that reality. Before the coronavirus outbreak, federal spending on recreation purposes, including national parks, had already stagnated by many measures. And as the Great Recession demonstrated just a decade ago, parks and other outdoor recreation resources are often one of the first places state and local politicians look to trim when budget troubles hit. State parks across the country were “forced to cut programming, reduce hours of operations, and sometimes shut their gates,” as Pew Charitable Trusts put it. Relatedly, as a post-recession study by the National Recreation and Park Association found, local government officials see parks and outdoor recreation funding “as being fully discretionary and as a luxury,” especially when compared to other public spending priorities such as education and healthcare. The recession shockwaves reverberated down to the city and municipal level, where local parks and recreation departments often suffered the most.

Based on recent history, it’s likely that discretionary appropriations for parks at all levels will at least be uncertain, if not unreliable, in coming months and years. When it comes to national parks, recreationists can and should help pick up the slack. Relying more on revenues generated by users would diversify funding, help weather any forthcoming shortfalls, and better position parks to deal with future shocks.

To be clear, user funding should complement appropriations. All Americans benefit from the mere existence of national parks—perhaps just through the knowledge that the lands encompassed by parks have been conserved for future generations. But the recreationists who visit national parks benefit far more than the many taxpayers who help fund parks but are never inclined to visit and enjoy them. The other side of the same coin is that visitors bring impacts—wear and tear on roads and trails, staff to run visitor centers or rangers to enforce the law, use of toilets and water systems—that have to be paid for somehow.

Visitor fees for admission to a national park or use of a campground or other amenity total approximately $300 million each year, or about 10 percent of the total National Park Service budget, but the distribution across sites varies greatly. According to agency data, of the 61 national parks, at least six—Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, Haleakala, Joshua Tree, and Zion—now bring in more revenue from visitors than they receive from congressional appropriations. Another dozen or so parks, including Acadia, Grand Teton, Shenandoah, Yellowstone, and Yosemite, collect recreation fee revenues equal to at least 40 percent of their appropriated funding. Because 80 percent of fee revenues stay in the park where collected, fee dollars provide park superintendents valuable funding to address their most pressing needs.

It’s no coincidence that many of these are the “destination” parks that adorn wall calendars and t-shirts. The value from a visit to one of these remarkable parks is immense compared to the entry fee charged—at most, $35 per vehicle for an entire week. Even if a family of four makes just a two-day visit, paying roughly $4 per person per day is a bargain to see sites like Half Dome or Grand Prismatic or take in hikes along the Maine coast or Virginia mountain streams. If funding is squeezed in the future, few visitors would hesitate to pay a little more to mitigate the impacts that come from visiting these wonders.

Similarly, most overseas visitors who can afford to come to U.S. national parks wouldn’t blink at paying fees higher than the ones charged to citizens and residents. If an American visits a national park in many other countries, it’s a given that the entry fee will be higher than what locals pay. The practice is logical—foreign tourists by definition have the means to pay for a trip abroad, often an expensive and far-flung one. Even with a surcharge, gate fees would likely still represent less than 1 percent of total trip costs for many international tourists.

An analysis by Visa estimated the share of summer visitors who come from abroad for 10 national parks. Combining those estimates with National Park Service data suggests that nearly three million foreign tourists visited those 10 parks last year. A $20 surcharge per overseas visitor to just those parks might raise $60 million, increasing total national park fee receipts by 20 percent.

Innovative ideas that go beyond tweaking price structures will probably be warranted in the future. Something like a voluntary “recreation stamp” that dedicates all proceeds to federal recreation purposes might make a worthwhile experiment. Every year, unique artwork could adorn a new stamp that ideally would become as much a badge of pride as a duck stamp is for a waterfowl hunter. The stamp could be explicitly marketed as a mechanism to raise dedicated funding for recreation.

The average cost of a fishing license is about $25. If, say, 10 percent of the 18 million people who are REI members purchased a $25 stamp, it would raise $45 million. If a quarter of members did, it would raise more than $100 million.

Well before a novel coronavirus brought Covid-19 to our world, appropriators had failed to properly fund recreation. Considering the likely upcoming budget shortfalls at various levels of government, we should think now about how recreationists can help support our parks in the post-pandemic landscape.

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