Popular Parks Can and Should Pay Their Way, Study Says

Published August 1, 1997

It is no secret that many of America’s beloved national parks are in an appalling state of disrepair, served by deteriorating roads and crumbling facilities. While reversing this trend will not be easy, two experts from the Political Economy Research Center (PERC) contend that restoration of the nation’s parks can begin by allowing them to become more self-sufficient.

Two years ago, U.S. News & World Report cited what it called “decades of forced neglect,” implying that taxpayers were not contributing their share to the maintenance of the nation’s parks. But PERC researchers Donald R. Leal and Holly Lipkke Fretwell note that Congress has been anything but stingy with funds allocated to national parks. Since 1980, the budget for the National Park Service has nearly doubled, increasing from almost $700 million to $1.3 billion.

In Back to the Future to Save Our Parks, a study released in June by PERC, Leal and Fretwell argue that the increased funding has served to expand the national park bureaucracy at the expense of providing quality services to park visitors. Most national parks return 85 percent of the fees they collect from visitors to the Federal Treasury, weakening the incentive park managers have to maximize revenues. Moreover, visitors’ fees have not kept pace with inflation. “If national parks are to be self-sufficient,” Leal and Fretwell write, “park managers must not only be allowed to charge more realistic fees, but they must be allowed to retain most of the proceeds to enhance these parks.”

Self-sufficiency, the authors argue, would:

  • give park managers an incentive to provide services and maintain parks in good condition;
  • encourage more realistic pricing–that is, prices that cover the cost of services–and careful attention to collecting lawful fees;
  • give park managers an incentive to balance costs and benefits, allowing them to add services that pay for themselves and eliminate those that don’t; and
  • free park managers from political constraints brought on by their dependence on Congress for most of their operating expenses.

“Politics is making it difficult to control runaway elk populations in Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain national parks, to keep ‘exotic’ mountain goats from eating rare plants in Olympic National Park, and to protect wildlife from snowmobile use in Yellowstone Park,” the PERC study notes.

Regarding the feasibility of raising user fees, the authors point out that 16 state park systems regularly obtain more than half their costs from such fees. “Requiring popular parks to be self-sustaining is the surest way of spurring responsible management and financial stability,” Leal and Fretwell observe.

PF: Back to the Future to Save Our Parks is available through PolicyFax. Call 847/202-4888 and request document #2316415 (19 pages).