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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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March 1998


The Real National Parks Story
Guest Editorial, by Donald R. Leal and Holly Lippke Fretwell

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 on.

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 crown-jewel parks.

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 doubled.

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).


Rich Noyes


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