One hears a lot these days about how our national parks are
falling apart. Yellowstone’s roads are full of potholes. Elevators
taking visitors to and from the caves at Wind Cave National Park in
South Dakota are unsafe. Wastewater treatment at Kings Canyon in
California is out of compliance with state standards. The list goes
With the help of the press, nearly everyone seems to buy into the
party line that these problems are rooted in "inadequate budgets."
But, in fact, Congress hasn’t been so stingy with park funding.
Since 1980, the total budget for the National Park Service has more
than doubled, increasing from almost $700 million to over $1.5
billion. From 1980 to 1995, spending on park operations grew at a
healthy rate of 3.1 percent per year after adjusting for inflation,
and full-time staff increased from 15,836 to 17,216 employees.
Ignoring these facts, the media instead report on a growing
backlog of "needed" construction projects, running as high as $6
billion, and rumblings by park superintendents about service
cutbacks due to budget shortfalls. In fact, a number of costly
construction projects are nothing more than economic development
pork pushed by politicians -- spending $13 million to construct a
music center in Blue Ridge Parkway, for example. Most park operating
budgets increase each year, though perhaps not as much as park
officials would like.
Only recently have the media begun to investigate how the money
is really being spent -- reporting on high-priced housing for park
personnel and on a $330,000 outhouse at Delaware Water Gap National
Park, for example.
If the nation is to restore and maintain our parks, it must
encourage greater fiscal accountability. Our popular parks must move
away from tax support and toward operational self-sufficiency. This
is the real national parks story that reporters need to begin
telling their viewers and readers.
Our national parks were once largely self-sufficient. But today,
90 cents of every dollar spent on parks comes from taxpayers.
Catering to Congress rather than to its visitors, the Park Service
misspends what it has, and politicians keep adding lower-quality
parks and pet construction projects, draining funds away from
Self-sufficiency would shift the attention back to the parks
themselves and to the park visitor. Specifically, park managers
would have an incentive to maintain parks in good condition to
satisfy their customer, the park visitor. They would have an
incentive to provide more services and collect lawful fees to raise
revenue for their budget. They would have an incentive to more
realistically balance costs and benefits. They would be freed from
the politics that promotes pork-barrel spending by politicians.
Some tentative steps have been made toward self-sufficiency. The
Recreational Fee Demonstration Program now allows up to one hundred
national park units to raise their fees, and each park unit gets to
keep all of its fee revenues. On average, entrance fees have more
than doubled, and the price of annual park passes has nearly
Still, more can and should be done. Due to loopholes in the fee
system (for example, cars entering Yellowstone by way of Grand Teton
Park do not pay an entrance fee), more than half the eligible
vehicles entering Yellowstone got in free last year. Congress must
let park managers set their own fees. In addition, Congress should
fix appropriations to individual parks at current levels, so that
increases come from higher fee revenues and from cost savings.
A number of state park systems are already moving toward greater
self-sufficiency, largely in response to the pinch of fiscally tight
legislatures. The result has been more reliance on visitor fees and
more visitor services.
The most dramatic changes have occurred in Texas, where park
managers agree to meet certain performance standards, including
spending limits and revenue goals. Environmentally friendly,
fee-based services have proliferated. They range from a two-hour
nocturnal "owl prowl" at Brazos Bend State Park to participation in
Big Bend’s Longhorn Cattle Drive and Campfire. By fiscal year 1995,
additional revenue in the Texas park system had reached $1.1 million
and cost savings totaled nearly $685,000.
Texas is not alone. Sixteen systems now regularly obtain more
than half their operating costs from user fees. This is the
direction in which our national parks should move.
Donald R. Leal is a senior associate and Holly
Lippke Fretwell is a research associate at PERC (the Political
Economy Research Center) in Bozeman, Montana. This article is based
on a longer paper, "Back to the Future to Save Our Parks," available
from PERC (www.perc.org).