Parks Without Politics

As the partial government shutdown drags on, the National Park Service is experiencing a lapse in funding. Yet the administration has moved to keep park units as open and accessible to the public as possible.

Stories of garbage accumulation, overflowing toilets, and landscape destruction fill the headlines, while concessionaires, nonprofits, volunteers, and state governments are stepping in to help. In week three of the shutdown the Park Service also appropriately decided to tap already collected fee revenues to provide basic services to keep parks open.

It’s time to take politics out of the parks. PERC believes 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 “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

See below for PERC’s input on national parks during the shutdown.

Popular Press

Get Politics Out of Our Parks (Outside Magazine): Now, more than ever, our national parks need protection from Washington’s budget fights.

What Fees Can (and Cannot) Do for Our National Parks (The Hill): Because each park has its own unique context, superintendents and other local staff should be able to decide how to spend their monies whether during a government shutdown or not.

Stop Playing Shutdown Politics with Our Parks (National Review): The administration is right to find creative ways to keep national parks open and to grant park officials more discretion to decide what’s best rather than mandating unnecessary closures.

Statements

The Role of Fees in Funding Parks: Visitor fees have long played an important role in sustaining national parks. Making those revenues available for park managers to bolster operations at parks during the government shutdown is a sensible policy.

Quotes in the Media

Troubles Grow as NPS Taps Visitor Fees to Clean Up Sites by Rob Hotakainen (E&E News):

Shawn Regan, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., said the park service “is right to search for creative ways to get our nation’s most popular parks back up and running.” 

“Tapping fee revenues to provide basic visitor services is eminently sensible,” said Regan, a former NPS ranger, adding that the federal law gives NPS “broad discretion” on how to spend the money to benefit visitors.

Interior Department Tests Legal Boundaries in Redirecting Fee Monies to National Park Garbage Collection by Kurt Repanshek (National Parks Traveler):

“With the government shutdown entering its third week, the National Park Service is right to search for creative ways to get our nation’s most popular parks back up and running. Tapping fee revenues to provide basic visitor services is eminently sensible,” said Shawn Regan, a research fellow at PERC and a former park ranger. “The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act requires that fee revenues must be spent on services or projects related to the enjoyment, access, health, and safety of park visitors. The act gives the Park Service broad discretion on how those funds can be used to benefit visitors.

“The Park Service has traditionally imposed internal controls on the use of FLREA funds — such as prohibiting the use of fee revenues to support permanent employees, requiring that most of the funds be spent on deferred maintenance, and policies that generally prohibit the use of fee revenue on recurring maintenance and operational needs,” he added. “These limitations, however, are not described in the FLREA statute.”

NPS to Tap Visitor Fees for Shutdown Operations by Michael Wright (Bozeman Daily Chronicle):

The idea is also backed by the Property and Environment Research Center, a Bozeman think tank that prides itself on practicing “free-market environmentalism.” Shawn Regan, a fellow at PERC, said in an email that using those funds is “eminently sensible.”

“With the government shutdown entering its third week, the National Park Service is right to search for creative ways to get our nation’s most popular parks back up and running,” Regan said.

Use of FLREA Revenues During Shutdown Could Jeopardize Park Projects, Seasonal Hiring by Kurt Repanshek (National Parks Traveler):

In Montana at the Property and Environment Research Center, Shawn Regan, a former park ranger, applauded the diversion of FLREA dollars, but added that individual parks in general should be given more discretion in how they spend their revenues.

“There are certainly tradeoffs with using fee revenues for operations instead of for maintenance and other one-off projects, which is how the funds have typically been used. Using these funds for operations could certainly impact future projects and hamper the agency’s progress at tackling its deferred maintenance problems,” said Regan. “But I think that’s a decision that local managers should be able to make on their own, not Washington, D.C. I fear the implementation of the current policy might be too heavy-handed if it doesn’t allow park managers to make decisions that are best for each individual park. It’s still a bit unclear what’s going on. I also hope Congress will consider reimbursing the agency for any fee revenues used to operate the parks during the shutdown.”

Groups Request Investigation Into Legality of Keeping National Parks Open by Kurt Repanshek (National Parks Traveler):

Questioning the basis for the complaints was Shawn Regan, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center in Montana.

“The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act gives the National Park Service broad discretion in the use of fee revenues, which do not require appropriation from Congress in order to be spent to enhance visitor services in parks,” he said. “The act states that such funds can be used for ‘repair, maintenance, and facility enhancement related directly to visitor enjoyment, visitor access, and health and safety.’ It’s hard to see why it would be contrary to the law for the agency to use those funds in ways that will enhance visitor access, enjoyment, and health and safety.

“The fact that the National Park Service has traditionally not used its fee revenues to support basic operations and maintenance — which is true — does not mean doing so would be a violation of FLREA, which it isn’t,” Regan added. “In fact, the U.S. Forest Service handles its FLREA revenues differently than the Park Service, allowing the funds to be spent to keep national forest campgrounds and other recreation sites operating and in safe condition, even during the government shutdown.”


Find a collection of PERC’s research on national parks here.