Make no doubt about it, the National Park Service is strapped for cash. Before grappling with the new federal mandate to cut 5 percent of its entire operating budget, the agency was already suffering from a funding shortfall in the hundreds of millions of dollars, had already taken a 15 percent cut in the last decade, and already has a staggering $12 billion maintenance backlog.
The annual budgetary process known as congressional appropriations can be an unpredictable ordeal for an agency with high fixed costs and little flexibility to make spending cuts. Though the National Park Service currently meets about 5.5 percent of its needs through park passes and fees, the vast majority of the agency’s funding is dependent on members of Congress voting to approve the dollars they spend—a situation that is now looking dicier than ever.
Without new creative and collaborative approaches, our national parks will face increasing challenges to maintaining the quality of park facilities and ranger services, and will struggle to protect the resources that preserve America’s heritage. Can responsible policies and creative thinking lead to more sustainable, diversified funding for our national parks and create revenue streams that are less affected by political cycles and ideological standoffs? To find out, NPCA staff and our partners at the National Park Hospitality Association (NPHA) and the Bipartisan Policy Center convened a bipartisan group of political leaders and park advocates yesterday, including former Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, Senator Mark Udall, and former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Christine Todd Whitman, among other distinguished guests from both sides of the political aisle and the greater parks community.
The event inspired a variety of policy recommendations, including:
1. Restructure National Park Entrance Fees. Many national parks sites do not charge entrance fees, and the cost of various fees and special passes can be inconsistent. A careful review shows the potential to raise some fees to help absorb costs, without creating a financial barrier for most visitors.
2. Increase Support from Highway Trust Fund (Penny for Parks). Currently, an 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal tax on motor fuel supports highways and road maintenance, which lawmakers have not raised since 1993. An additional penny per gallon on this tax could generate $1.5 billion annually, which could be used to address the $5 billion road and bridge maintenance backlog that exists in national parks and on other public lands.
3. Create a Flexible Matching Fund. In 1976, Congress created the Historic Preservation Fund, which uses federal revenue from oil, gas, and other mineral production on federal lands and waters to fund preservation projects and studies. A proposed “Park Legacy Fund” could serve as a similar source of revenue for national park maintenance projects. Such a fund could also allow contributions from private donors to help meet project needs.
4. Expand Concessioner Activities. Concessioners now pay nearly $100 million annually in franchise fees on the roughly $1.2 billion that they bring in each year. By extending the operating hours at some park sites such as Alcatraz and the Statue of Liberty, the Park Service could allow some of its concessioners the opportunity to increase their sales. This could allow the Park Service to charge higher franchise fees while simultaneously allowing more visitors to enjoy these parks.
These are just a few of the 16 ideas shared at yesterday’s forum. The goal? Recommend sound funding solutions for national parks, backed by the parks community, to generate meaningful bipartisan support. See the full list of alternative funding solutions discussed here (PDF).
About the author
Tom Kiernan Former president of NPCA