Parks Without Politics

National parks have never been more popular, but they need protection from Washington’s budget fights.

Our national parks encompass some of our most unique and prized landscapes. From steaming geysers in Yellowstone, to misty mountains in the Smokies, to craggy peaks in Denali, national parks cover some of the most amazing places America has to offer. The National Park Service, which oversees more than 400 total sites across 84 million acres, is charged with caring for these public treasures. It has a pivotal mission: “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Effective management of our national parks is critical for achieving these conservation goals. But our parks need our help. The National Park Service faces nearly $12 billion of overdue maintenance projects, an amount roughly three times greater than the agency’s budget. The lack of attention shows in washed-out trails, dilapidated visitor centers, and crumbling roads across the park system. The backlog of deferred maintenance is the product of inadequate funding to perform routine repairs and upkeep over the years.

Parks are routinely setting visitation records, an exciting trend but one that is straining infrastructure and pressuring wildlife and vegetation even more. After relatively flat visitation from the 1980s to the 2010s, visits to the park system surged by 16 percent over the past five years. In 2018, 28 individual sites set new visitation records.

PERC seeks to foster better management of our national parks by harnessing the power of entrepreneurship, markets, property rights, and cooperative partnerships. Amid the booming popularity of our national parks, politics threatens to undermine the ability of local managers to sustain and protect them. It’s time to take politics out of the parks. Making parks less vulnerable to Washington’s budget fights will ensure that they cannot be used as pawns to advance the agenda of any administration. Creative conservation solutions can ensure our parks are properly cared for now and for future generations.

WHAT PERC BELIEVES

PERC believes that efforts to make our parks less reliant on the whims of political funding decisions will help ensure we meet the National Park Service’s mission. At its core, conservation is about maintaining and stewarding what you already own. Creative funding models that incorporate users and allow park officials discretion to set spending priorities can ensure our parks have bright futures.

Congress has prioritized the acquisition of new parks over the care and maintenance of existing ones. To comprehensively address maintenance challenges, we must address the underlying problem of adequately funding cyclic, ongoing maintenance. Revenues from recreation fees paid by park visitors can help in this endeavor.

Visitor fees have long played an important role in sustaining national parks. Because each park has its own unique context, superintendents and other local staff should have authority to decide how to spend the revenues they collect. Park managers should also have a say in setting their fee structures and establishing new, flexible fee-based services, such as dynamic or congestion pricing.

Additionally, creative public-private partnerships could help the National Park Service address unfunded infrastructure projects. The agency can look to states and local governments for inspiration on how to deal with infrastructure challenges. Over the past several decades, state and local governments have used public-private partnerships to tap into private-sector capital and expertise and stretch tax dollars further.

Where appropriate, outsourcing activities to the private sector could also help improve efficiency and allow the National Park Service to focus its scarce resources elsewhere. Many Forest Service campgrounds are run in partnership with a private lessee, yet concessions at national parks are limited to a few commercial activities, including lodges, park retail stores, and restaurants. We should explore opportunities to outsource routine park operations to the private sector through public-private partnerships while maintaining public ownership and oversight.

WHAT PERC IS DOING

PERC has a long record of researching innovative ways to improve management of our national parks. In 2016, the centennial of the National Park Service, we released Breaking the Backlog, a thorough analysis of seven ideas that could help address the deferred maintenance backlog in national parks. We also dedicated an issue of our magazine, PERC Reports, to exploring ways to reduce the National Park Service’s reliance on Congress, improve park maintenance and operations, and prepare our parks for the challenges of the 21st century. 

Over recent years, PERC scholars have testified before the U.S. Congress five times on issues related to national parks, expanding upon the ideas mentioned here and aiming to influence policymakers to make real change. It’s time to look for ways to rely less on politics and more on creative solutions that can help steward our parks properly, now and for future generations.


Research on This Topic

Restoring Our National Parks: Testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on National Parks’ hearing on S. 3172, the Restore Our Parks Act, on July 11, 2018.

Deferred Maintenance and Operation Needs of the National Park Service: Testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources’ hearing to examine deferred maintenance and operation needs of the National Park Service on April 17, 2018.

Breaking the Backlog: 7 Ideas to Address the National Park Deferred Maintenance Problem: A report on reform ideas that would enable parks to become more self-sufficient and less reliant on Congress for annual appropriations.

PERC Reports: Back to the Future of Our National Parks: A PERC Reports magazine issue on ways to reduce the National Park Service’s reliance on Congress, improve park maintenance and operations, and prepare our parks for the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Fixing Our Parks, One Step at a Time: An op-ed in Fox News Opinion on how the Great American Outdoors Act will help address the deferred maintenance backlog on our public lands by creating a dedicated fund free from Congressional budget fights.

The Great American Outdoors Act and What it Means for Our Public Lands: An interview on C-SPAN Washington Journal on the Great American Outdoors Act and what unique features of it will work to address our deferred maintenance backlog.

Get Politics Out of Our Parks: An article in Outside Magazine on how now, more than ever, our national parks need protection from Washington’s budget fights.

Fix the Parks We Already Have: An article in the Los Angeles Times on how dedicated funding for deferred maintenance in the National Park Service is a step in the right direction.

National Parks: Lost in the Wilds of Neglect: An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on how the National Park Service’s deferred maintenance backlog is nearly $12 billion—and it shows. It’s time to start afresh.