Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Shrink to fit.
National parks bring in lots of money but they don't get to control how it's spent. Private companies are the main beneficiaries of tourist traffic, and for the most part they have free rein over how to spend the tourist gold.
At Yellowstone National Park, for example, Congress appropriated $17.9 million to the park for all expenses during the recently completed fiscal year. In this same period, the park brought in $3.8 million through entrance fees and $370,000 through camping fees, but this money passed right through to the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. For more than a decade most of the fund has gone to reduce the federal deficit instead of to purchase inholdings and other land worthy of preservation.
As for concessionaires operating within Yellowstone, they grossed more than $61 million - nearly four times the park's annual budget. They spent $7.3 million last year in the park, mostly on building maintenance. The half-million dollars concessionaires paid in franchise fees went straight to the Treasury.
So over the course of a year in which money-generating activites in the park totaled more than $66 million, not a cent landed in Yellowstone's coffers.