How can we sustainably fund our national parks?


Given the iconic status of our national parks—the spirited geysers of Yellowstone, striking gravitas of the Statue of Liberty and Kodachrome hollows of the Grand Canyon—it’s hard to imagine a time when their establishment and protection were a hard sell. But a century ago, that’s where park champions found themselves; hawking to Congress and the American people a vision of a network of parks that would safeguard our natural and cultural resources. And sadly, it’s where park supporters find themselves again today.

In the years leading up to the founding of the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916, its proponents puzzled over how to make parks relevant to ordinary Americans and build congressional support for them. Some of the most fervent characters of the day in business, conservation, politics and journalism came together to promote the radical idea of the parks as a source of national pride, spiritual renewal and, significantly, as an economic engine.

The National Parks Portfolio. Courtesy of the NPS.

They did this with a massive PR blitz. Scores of articles appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country, and more than 350,000 copies of the National Parks Portfolio—filled with romantic depictions, photos and park pamphlets—were sent to libraries and travel bureaus. The strategy was simply to introduce Americans to their land and insist they see it for themselves. And they did. Before 1916, few Americans could name two national parks and, by 1920, visitation exceeded one million (by 1928, it was three million).

In some ways we’re in a better place than we were 100 years ago; our national park units are world-renowned and have been the backdrops for our school trips and family outings for generations. As a result they are also, at least in theory, a broadly supported concept. But, in other ways, the clock has rewound to the dawn of the NPS. Parks face an uncertain future for several reasons: the recent sequestration cuts, a $12 billion maintenance backlog (due in part to the 15 percent drop in NPS funding over the past decade), declining morale of Service employees and the struggle to link youth and minorities to parks.

Much as they did a century ago, park proponents are now asking: who will fight for the integrity of parks and how will they be funded in a sustainable way?

This was the topic of a forum at the Washington, D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center recently, which discussed funding strategies from the white papers, Sustainable Supplementary Funding for America’s National Parks. In its 2013 budget, despite growing needs, the NPS requested roughly $1 million less than it received from Congress last year. It will somehow rely on 218 fewer full-time employees as a result. Currently, the NPS is the keeper of 401 units, 23 national scenic and national historic trails and 58 wild and scenic rivers, which it runs with:

—Federal allocations of nearly $3 billion;
—Recreation fees of about $230 million;
—Concessions franchise fees of roughly $100 million per year and;
—Donations to the National Park Foundation (NPF) of around $25 million.

The 16 funding strategies discussed at the forum are all based on weaning the NPS off appropriated money and reclaiming its future from congressional capriciousness. Here are a few of the ideas and what I see as their strengths and weaknesses:

Penny for the parks— This federal fuel tax of one cent per gallon would generate approximately $1.5 billion annually, and go toward improving roads and transportation in parks. Upside: Most Americans would likely support the nominal cost hike. Downside: It would have to be authorized and renewed by Congress, amidst fist-pounding from oil and gas lobbies.

Entry fee tweaking—A family of four pays roughly 89 cents per person per day for a week in a national park. Charging per person (and not per vehicle) and per day (instead of per week), raising fees for international visitors and on annual and lifetime passes are part of this scheme. Upside: Many people polled about the cost of national parks characterize it as a “bargain” and are willing to pay a little more. Downside: Many visit parks because they are not expensive and higher fees may drive away those on the fence about cost.

National Park fee booths. Courtesy of the NPS.

‘Park zone’ taxes—These modest surcharges would be enacted in popular gateway towns, whose economies rely heavily on park visitors. Upside: A small increase can net a lot of cash: For example, a 0.5% sales tax hike in Estes Park, Colo., gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, would generate at least $500,000 additional revenue annually. Downside: Tax hikes are always unpopular.

“Round-up” for the parks—Hotels, restaurants and gift store shops could ask customers to ‘round up’ to the next dollar while educating consumers on the effect of their small donation (Round up to keep the toilets flushing!). Upside: It requires minimal effort on the part of the donor. Downside: It’s easy to say no.

Expand volunteerism—In the past five years, nearly 2.5 million volunteers have given more than 97 million hours (an estimated value of $2.1 billion in services) to the park system. Upside: There is a ready army looking to support parks in this way. Downside: There needs to be adequate NPS staff to support these efforts.

Volunteers in Saguaro National Park. Courtesy of the NPS.

The National Parks Conservation Association and National Park Hospitality Association, who published the white papers, are asking for your innovative funding ideas at [email protected]

Two ideas I’ll be sending to the NPCA revolve around donations. First, there’s no quick and easy way to give to the parks’ foundation. A crowd sourcing campaign leading up to the NPS Centennial should make texting “PARKS” from one’s mobile device to donate dollars a function available at all times. It should be publicized widely at parks, at visitor centers, in park literature and on every NPS unit web page.

My second thought is that parks need to be asking visitors for money on their way out. Volunteers could staff an exit gate, or area, and ask for feedback on visits: What was your favorite part of the day? How much do you think your experience was worth? Could you make a donation to support parks right now? Studies done a few years back by University of Rochester researchers showed that people exposed to nature were far more giving, on the spot, than their counterparts immersed in urban life.

During the push to create the NPS a century ago, supporters sold the parks to their fellow Americans with a mix of romanticism and pragmatism. Robert Sterling Yard, the author of the National Parks Portfolio wrote, “The national parks are far more than recreational areas. They are the supreme examples; they are the gallery of masterpieces. Here the visitor enters in a holier spirit; here is inspiration.”

Photo illustration courtesy of the NPS.

While his boss, the first NPS director, Stephen Mather often spoke of the calm and healing he experienced in parks, he recognized their economic potential as well. And he was right. The Service’s peer-reviewed report on economic benefits to communities showed that, in 2011, national park visitation generated over $30 billion while supporting 252,000 jobs.

In the time leading up to the NPS Centennial in 2016, we will likely celebrate our romantic views of parks and should emphasize the symbiosis between parks and our economy, and we should also recognize the often unspoken natural capital that lies within; biodiversity, air-scrubbing trees and untainted water, to name a few.

Most importantly, we need to acknowledge that we now are at a unique moment in history. We are responsible for heralding these extraordinary collective resources into the next century—a formidable but exciting task. How great the coming century will be is up to us. As the original NPS architects did, we have to use our passion to drive innovative, sustainable funding ideas forward.

Heather Hansen is a journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at CU Law School, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

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

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