The United States National Park Service has a cash-flow problem, and there don’t seem to be any easy ways to solve it.

Let me start this by saying, in writing about a US policy debate, I am not trying to engage in a political debate.  This is not about a particular political party – in fact I’d argue that the immediate establishment of “what team you’re on” is one of the biggest problems we face as a nation right now.  Well, that, and the immediate gratification of sound-byte news that reinforces our gut opinions and widens the ideological divide without any actual discussion of information.  So, I’m actually attempting to remedy that a bit, and present official data from US Government sources, without media spin.  I encourage you, as citizens (or curious bystanders if you’re not in the US!), to review the actual data before you weigh in on the debate.

Grand_teton_national_reserve

Grand Teton

As somebody who advocates for outdoor education, this issue is important to me, and I feel it is important to the country.  The bottom line is that the National Park Service has conflicting obligations – to protect a park, AND make it accessible to the people.  Every decision they make is therefore one of compromise.  Regardless of your politics – there is no “right” answer, but it is a complicated issue that we collectively need to address.

The National Park Service (NPS) has presented a fee increase proposal, and invited public comment through November 23, 2017.  This is the proposal that’s hitting the headlines, and unfortunately it’s getting spun every which way.  I encourage you to go look at the source, and review the fact sheet published by the NPS, even as I try to summarize some of the more salient points:

  • The proposed fee increases would impact entrance fees at 17 National Parks across the country, and go into effect during “peak seasons” – generally summertime.  It’s the magnitude of these increases that has drawn so much attention.  Taking my “local” Park as an example, in Shenandoah the current usage fee of $25 per vehicle would jump to $70 per vehicle between June 1 and October 31.  Annual pass cost would increase more modestly, from $50 to $75.
  • Specific fee structures vary by park – and all are broken out in the fact sheet.
  • Affected parks include:  Acadia, Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Denali, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Joshua Tree, Mt. Rainier, Olympic, Rocky Mountain, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Shenandoah, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion.
  • These are the top revenue parks – they collect 70% of all the entrance fee revenue across the country.  (Again, this is per the fact sheet).
  • 80% of the funds collected will be used within the park where it is collected, with the other 20% being distributed to other parks.  The primary use of the funds is to improve facilities and infrastructure, and to address the deferred maintenance backlog.
  • The expected revenue generation will be a 34.3% increase from Fiscal Year ’16 revenues of $199.9M (i.e. the period ending September 30, 2016), resulting in $268.5M.  This delta in real dollars is $68.6M.
  • Only 118 of 417 National Park units collect entrance fees.  The other 299 are free to enter.

These are the facts, as presented by the National Park Service.

Lets look at some other pertinent facts, starting with attendance figures in the parks and the current plan for next year’s Park Service operating budget, per the 2018 Budget Justification for the National Park Service.

  • VIsitation vs. Staff

    Visitation vs. NPS Staff, taken from 2018 Budget Justification at link above.

    According to the Department of the Interior, attendance in the National Park system has increased steadily, year over year, since 2013.  In 2016, attendance was at 324 million people, a 17% increase from 2011 baseline of 277 million.

  • Over that same period of time, National Park Service employees have decreased from a 2011 number of 22,051 Full-Time Equivalents (FTE) to a 2016 total of 19,696 – an 11% decrease.
  • The 2018 budget for the National Park Service reflects a net decrease of Federally allocated budget authority, amounting to $322.249M.  This is the total change from the current FY17 Continuing Resolution.
  • This net reduction is actually countered by an increase in allocation of funds for various construction efforts, amounting to $34.604M
  • Of the $322M total, the Park Facility Maintenance and Operations budget will be decreased by $56.340M
  • Park staff will decrease by an estimated 1,206 FTE.
  • Almost all other aspects of the NPS budget will see a decrease – Natural Programs, Grant Management, Cultural Programs, Land Acquisition, etc.

Looking at a refined breakdown of attendance numbers of the affected parks in 2016, taken directly from the National Park Service statistics:

  • Great Smoky Mountains NP is the most highly visited park in the country.  In 2016, it broke an all time record with 11,312,786 visitors.  However, it does not appear on the list of parks affected by this fee increase, because it is a FREE National Park – it is thus not one of the top revenue-generators.
  • Acadia – 3,303,393
  • Arches – 1,585,718
  • Bryce – 2,365,110
  • Canyonlands – 776,218
  • Denali – 587,412
  • Glacier – 2,946,681
  • Grand Canyon – 5,969,811
  • Grand Teton – 3,270,076
  • Joshua Tree – 2,505,286
  • Mount Rainier – 1,356,913
  • Olympic – 3,390,221
  • Rocky Mountain – 4,517,585
  • Sequoia – 1,254,688 / Kings Canyon – 607,479
  • Shenandoah – 1,437,341
  • Yellowstone – 4,257,177
  • Yosemite – 5,028,868
  • Zion – 4,295,127

The grand total visiting the 17 parks (considering Sequoia and Kings Canyon as a single park, just as the NPS did) in 2016 – 49,455,104, or about 15% of the US population.  The overall number of visitors, as mentioned above, was 324 million, or 99% of the US population (recognizing of course that not all NPS visitors are US citizens).

Bull_elk_bugling_in_the_gibbon_meadow_in_the_yellowstone_national_park

Bull Elk in Yellowstone National Park

Given that a fee structure exists TODAY in the National Park Service, much of the operating budget still comes from Federal taxes – theoretically 100% of the population is paying to maintain a park system that (arguably) has national importance, but at least in the top revenue generating parks – the most visited, Great Smoky Mountain aside – is only experienced directly by 15% of the population.

To generate the estimated $68.6M the NPS hopes to raise, each visitor (if they held steady for 2018) would pay $1.38 more than they did in 2016.  Assuming a high average of 4 per car – this is $5.52 per vehicle.  If only half of the visitors are paying the fee (during the peak summer months), that’s $11.04 per car, or $2.76 per person.

But the proposed increase is closer to $40/vehicle.  So for this math to work, if we maintain visitor numbers, each vehicle would contain 14.5 people.  We’re either going to start visiting by bus, or there’s a built-in assumption that given the higher fees, 10.5 of those 14.5 individuals just elect not to visit one of these National Parks.  The remaining 4 who actually fit in the car (and again, this is assuming a pretty full car) are then each paying their extra $10.

Now, viewed in these terms, $10/person in a 4-per-car scenario doesn’t sound all that exorbitant.  But you have to realize that this figure makes the ASSUMPTION, by the NPS, that for every 14.5 people that visited in 2016, only 4 will visit in the peak season of 2018.  At an even visitation rate year-round, that’s a PLANNED reduction in these parks of 36% over the year.  If you assume that 75% of the park attendance is during peak times, then it only requires eliminating 27% of current visitor numbers to  arrive at the projected revenue, but while making a significant dent in the peak-season visitation rates.  There are a lot of variables and assumptions that can change these numbers, but the point of the math here is that the proposal is NOT asking each visitor to pay $1.38 more, and cashing in on the parks’ historic record-breaking popularity to generate additional funds.  Instead, the NPS recognizes that this increase will have the secondary effect of reducing park visitation, and seems to be using the price hike as a deliberate deterrent, in addition to collecting additional revenue.

HalfDomeTraffic

Crowds on the Cable Route, ascending Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

At face value, attempting to reduce visitor numbers is not necessarily a bad thing.  The Parks are struggling with overcrowding right now.  I failed to find a direct Government reference for this problem, but search up “National Park overcrowding”, or go and visit one of these parks during high season, and you’ll see that too many people on too few acres of prized, protected lands is having an impact and arguably harming the visitor experience as well as the lands and wildlife that the NPS is chartered to protect.  Reducing human footprint is a legitimate objective, and it’s why permits and lottery-driven access to certain areas have been in effect for years.  In fact there are some who argue that humans shouldn’t be allowed in certain locations AT ALL, for the benefit of the wildlife and the environment.

From this perspective, the combination of extra money and less crowding might be viewed as a win-win, and would doubtless improve the visitor’s experience by improving facilities AND providing more elbow room.  However, the mechanism is drawing fire.  At these rates, access to the parks will certainly be more difficult to those with lower levels of disposable income, and reductions in visitor numbers are quite likely to be the result of fewer visits by lower income families.  So while campaigns like “Find Your Park” seek to reach more visitors from more diverse populations, it becomes clear that Park Service needs, wants, fiscal challenges and proposed solutions are somewhat at odds with each other.

Therein lies the rub – National Parks were created as public resources, to be funded by public money (taxes) and accessible to the public.  As the inscription on the Roosevelt Arch at Yellowstone’s north entrance reads, “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People”.  This proposed fee structure assumes, and might even guarantee, that a larger portion (larger than today) of the public can’t affordably visit the most popular places the NPS manages, and will just stop visiting.  At the same time, the 2018 budget reallocates tax funding away from the Park Service, and intentionally digs the hole that this proposal appears to try and fill, at least partially.

The proposed solution is one of user-fees that passes direct operating cost to visitors, which sounds fair, but again it is not an incremental change that affects today’s numbers.  It is a deliberate lever, and by using the price hike as a form of population control as well, the approach makes assumptions (and effective restrictions) on who those users will be.  As visitation declines, even if planned, the case for public funding will be harder and harder to make – meaning that this is likely not a stop-gap temporary measure to fill a one year shortfall, but potentially a new status-quo.

I’m sure these same issues were considered when the CURRENT rate structure was put in place too…

npsI don’t presume to have the answers – as I said, it’s complicated.  You have to recognize that the NPS does need money, and that some of that is no longer available in the 2018 budget.  At the same time, they have a charter to protect the parks, which is a clear double-edged sword – keeping people away will certainly protect the parks, but keeping people out has the effect of eroding the base of public support required to keep them running, and funded.

So how do you raise money AND reduce the number of participants without making it a  “pay-to-play” system that excludes those below a certain tax-bracket?  Share your ideas, join the debate, and I encourage you to please exercise your rights and democratic freedom, and comment here, before November 23!

Get Out There
Troy
flying-squirrel.org

4 thoughts on “How Should the United States Fund its National Parks?

    • Thanks for taking the time to read it! I try to assume positive intent and recognize that there’s no magic answer. The one thing that bothers me – it’s clear when you actually look at the numbers (only generating 68.6M) that reducing visitation is a deliberate objective and not an unfortunate side effect. If it were just money, we could leverage the high visitation rates to make that much with very little financial impact to the visitor.

      As I describe here, there are legitimate reasons why crowd control would be an objective – but I have yet to see any acknowledgement that lowering visitor numbers is a goal, even as most media reports “worry” this will have that effect. It feels like a lack of transparency, and that isn’t sitting right with me. If the NPS is scared of making the statement, “We are using this fee structure, in part, to discourage visitation to the parks during the overcrowded peak season”, and they have trouble defending that position, then it’s very likely they need to think about other ways to implement this change.

      Like

  1. You really did your homework on this one. I doubt there is an easy answer but the most visited free park seems like it could charge a minimal fee or even donation box and would probably add much to more revenue. Maybe all the free parks could charge a minimal fee or have a donation box.
    With the other over crowded ones, why not have group tours? They could say it is for safety reasons. Forest fires, littering, what ever. That way they can still be open to the public but going as a group, having to register, it would keep things under control and not over-crowded.
    Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading this one, it’s not as “fun” as I like to make my posts!

      I didn’t delve too deeply on the Smokies being free, but I do believe that dates to the park’s creation and has to do with the fact that a lot of private land was acquired to make the park in the first place. Keeping it free was part of that deal.

      I did submit comments to NPS, and suggested that they needed to spend some time over the winter months thinking about a reservation system, lottery access to certain areas, etc. – visitor caps aren’t unusual, and I actually endorse the need to do it, but I’m suspicious about their silence on this objective, likely because they can’t defend it without making it look inequitable. I suggested they can raise rates by $3/person. Even if they only get 75% of 2016 numbers, that will generate almost twice as much as they’re shooting for (more than $111M), and provide a cushion, and time, to address the overcrowding issue in a more equitable way.

      Liked by 1 person

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