The Most Visited National Parks Could Be Self Sufficient


By Shawn Regan

Visitors to national parks got into the parks for free this weekend, the first of 17 days in 2011 the National Park Service is waiving entrance fees.

While it’s hard to complain about what seems like a free lunch, the NPS can ill afford such freebies.  Its backlog in deferred maintenance projects lies at $9 billion. And in 2008, for every dollar the NPS spent, it got back only 16 cents.

Each fee-free day costs the agency between $750,000 and $1 million in foregone revenues, amounting to $12-$17 million for the free dates in 2011. This is a mere drop in the bucket when compared with the colossal backlog, but it begs a question: what should be done about the Park Service’s fees and budget?

The graph above (provided by Holly Fretwell via Environmental Trends) shows the daily fee that would be required to make the most visited parks operationally self sufficient. Each of the 35 parks listed receives over 2 million visitors per year. With daily per-person fees between $0.17 and $11.36, these parks could cover their entire operating budget.

Even the most expensive daily fee, $11.36 for Yellowstone National Park, would cost less than the average price of popcorn and a movie ticket.

But Yellowstone is a bit of an outlier. The average cost to visit one of 35 most popular parks would be a paltry $3.13. Even Yosemite, the second most expensive, would cost only $8.30 per day.

To be sure, under this hypothetical pricing scheme many parks would see their fees rise on a per-day basis. Most parks do not provide daily fee options. For instance, a typical pass to Yellowstone is valid for one week and costs $25.

But the more parks rely on Congress — not their visitors — for funding, the more decisions become based on their political, rather than conservation, merit. Consider the early history of Yellowstone. Stephen Mather, the first director the Park Service, intended for the parks to be financially self sufficient. As Fretwell writes:

The receipts from these fees were held in a special account, accessible to the Park Service without congressional appropriation for road maintenance, park development, and administration. Mather considered agency control of the funds important for responsible management.

Just two years after the creation of the Park Service, however, Congress ordered all park receipts to go to the national treasury. Since then, politics has played a large role in Park Service operations, from budgets to entrance fees. Only recently has that begun to change, but the grip of politics is still firmly embedded.

As the graph above illustrates, making steps towards more park autonomy in decision making and funding may not be too painful and is surely worth considering.

This blog post was originally posted at the PERColator blog, a project of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). PERC, a nonprofit located in Bozeman, MT, is dedicated to improving environmental quality through property rights and markets.

Shawn Regan is a public affairs fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, MT, and a former ranger from the National Park Service

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

This proposal is nuts
Jan 20, 2011 11:08 AM
I'm shocked to see this sort of looney-tunes, parks-for-the-rich glibertarian proposal given space on HCN.

The fact is that right now, entrance fees are charged per vehicle - $25 for a week at Yosemite. Charging daily per-person fees would represent a significant cost increase for a family vacation that spends three or four days in the park - easily into the hundreds of dollars.

This would put visiting our national parks further out of reach of the average American, potentially eroding overall political support for the system. It amounts to a massively regressive tax increase on outdoor recreation.

The real solution is to properly fund our land management agencies. There's plenty of money out there to do it with - it's just getting spent on blowing stuff up in Iraq.
Self Sufficency
Jan 20, 2011 11:19 AM
In California, the current budget proposals seem to suggest there is a real movement from state control to local control and perhaps we will see the same type of decentralization regarding the Federal government and parks.

I was not aware that the gate receipts collected went to the general Federal fund and were not immediately used by the parks. If those numbers are correct, I think these slight increases could take the worry out of any Federal budget problems coming down the pike. Also, while increasing anything in this economic period is never a great starting point, the increases seem manageable enough to keep the parks open to the majority of Americans.
Significant? You bet.
Jan 20, 2011 11:37 AM
Under this proposal, a family of four spending a week in Yellowstone would see their fee go from $25 to $308.

If a 12-fold increase is "manageable" to you, I'm betting you get paid far more than the average American family.
Jan 20, 2011 03:51 PM
Yes, the daily fee extended over 7 days would be significantly higher. Perhaps a way to mitigate that would be to offer discounted tickets for multi-day passes. If families are involved, currently anyone under 15 can enter for free.[…]/feesandreservations.htm

If they change this, perhaps it will be a reduced rate for children so the rates aren't equally as high for minors. There has to be some solution to maintaining our parks for the benefit of everyone without relying on a government that does not have the money to allocate to all of these projects. If that means paying a higher fee but is still affordable for most people (and I agree over $300 additionally for 7+ days is high so I hope for the multi-day discounted passes in this scenario), then I say go for it.
The government does have the money
Jan 20, 2011 04:06 PM
It's just being spent on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a giant Homeland Security apparatus and tax cuts for the rich. Those are all choices. We can make different ones.

To claim poverty as a reason for raising a regressive tax on outdoor recreation (that's what it is, after all) is a fallacy.
Jan 20, 2011 04:44 PM
I certainly agree that our money can be better spent and I would love to stop throwing billions into military sinkholes and allocate it to alleviating poverty, schools and parks.

Here in California a ballot measure failed where everyone would chip in $18 a year through the DMV to pay for public parks. That didn't pass, the state's budget has lots of cuts to state parks, some of which will close. Is it better to pay a few bucks more a year and have all the parks to enjoy or close some of the parks? Not saying that national parks will close but until there is more money, I don't mind paying a reasonable amount more to enjoy parks.
Wise Use
Jan 20, 2011 03:46 PM
A quick look at PERC's website reveals them to be nothing more than the Wise Use movement with graduate degrees: nothing the government has ever done with public lands has worked; nothing the free market does ever fails. Hence, we should sell off our public lands and let the free market dictate public land and environmental policy.

Of course, they do a nice job on the website of making themselves look like conservationists, but they're really just wise-use members in sheeps clothing.