Do the National Parks Have Enough Money?

Group of parks rangers stand behind a sign advertising the National Parks Service’s Find Your Park campaign.
100th Birthday Of The National Park Service Celebration. John Lamparski / Getty Images

 As it starts its 100th year, the National Parks Service finds itself maintaining and managing 413 parks and monuments on 84 million acres of land and hosting more than 84 million visitors per year. Doing that takes a lot of money. So how is the financial health of our national parks?

First of all, the growth of the national parks and monuments system shows no signs of slowing down.  On August 26, 2016, President Obama announced the expansion of Hawaii’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument to 582,578 square miles.

And on June 24, 2016, the Parks Service dedicated the Stonewall National Monument in New York City, to commemorate LGBTQ rights.

How Much Parks Money Comes From Where?

According to a January 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Parks Service’s funding comes from a combination of annual federal budget appropriations, entrance and camping fees, fees from vendors, and donations.

From fiscal years 2005 through 2014, total combined Parks Service funding from all sources increased by 15% -- from $2.7 billion to $3.1 billion. However, due to inflation over the period, total Parks Service revenue actually fell by 3%.

An average of about 88% of all Parks Service funding comes from annual budget appropriations as approved annually by Congress. From fiscal years 2005 through 2014, Parks Service funding from appropriations dropped 8% after adjusting for inflation.

Closing the Inflation Gap

Helping to make up for that 11% inflation-adjusted shortfall, Parks Service revenue from fees, donations and other funding sources increased 39% from fiscal years 2005 through 2014.

Parks Service revenues from recreational user fees, which include entrance and amenity fees for facilities such as campsites, increased by 26% -- from about $148 million to $186 million.

Revenues from fees paid by in-park concessions operations, which comprise the vast majority of commercial service fees, nearly tripled from almost $29 million to $85 million.

Cash donations from philanthropic sources varied from $19.5 million in fiscal year 2011 to an impressive $94.7 million in fiscal year 2014. A senior Park Service official told the GAO that the wide fluctuation was largely due to donors contributing to large projects at particular park units that attracted the attention of donors in certain years.

More Money from Park Users

Trying to lessen its dependence on the politically influenced whims of Congress, the Parks Service raised entrance and camping fees in 111 parks in 2014 and 2015.

The GAO reported that the Parks Service faces legal obstacles to further increasing park user fees. For example, the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) prohibits the agency from charging entrance fees at any of the heavily-visited national parks located in the District of Columbia. In addition, the FLREA prevents the Parks Service from raising the price its America the Beautiful lifetime parks passes for seniors, which has been $10 since 1993.

In addition the Parks Service does not require its individual parks to share information on their decisions to not increase their visitor fees or deviate from the fee schedule. As a result, noted the GAO, the Park Service is missing opportunities to ensure that its entrance fees are reasonable and adequate to benefit the overall parks system.

So, Hit the Parks Vendors Harder

But what he Parks Service can increase is the franchise fees it collects from private-sector, commercial concessioners and vendors who pay to operate things like hotels and restaurants in national parks. By increasing its minimum franchise fees, the Parks Service more than tripled its revenues from concessioners to about $85 million in 2014.

However noted the GAO, the Parks Service may have squeezed as much blood out of the franchise fee turnip, as companies have shown little interest in competing for contracts in parks that attract fewer visitors due to their isolated locations or shorter tourist seasons.

Funds from Donations

The Park Service is authorized by law to receive and use cash donations and in-kind donations from individuals, nonprofit organizations, and corporations.

To help encourage cash donations the Parks Service develops agreements with nonprofit partner groups, known as “friends groups,” made up mostly of citizen volunteers. Friends groups engage in fundraising efforts on behalf of individual parks.

The Parks Service also saves money by developing citizen groups know as “cooperating associations” that provide interpretive services for visitors, manage retail operations at parks and share a portion of their proceeds from these operations with the park units. Parks visitor centers, museums, and gift shops are often operated by cooperating association volunteers. Similarly, most parks docents are volunteers from the associations.

In relation to its centennial year in 2016-2017, the Parks Service along with the National Park Foundation launched a fundraising campaign with a goal of raising $250 million by 2018 to support 100 key projects. In addition, the Parks Service joined the Foundation’s “Find Your Park” campaign to increase visitation at national parks.

However, the GAO reported that while the Parks Service and its volunteer groups had no problem raising big donations for large, highly visible projects like new visitor centers, “nuts-and-bolts” projects liked maintaining sewer systems and parks service roads are far less likely draw adequate donations.

What the GAO Recommended

The GAO recommended that Congress should consider amending the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act to allow all federal agencies, like the National Parks Service and the National Forest Service, that charge recreation fees can determine whether to adjust the prices of their senior passes.

GAO also recommended that the Department of the Interior direct the Park Service to periodically review all of its entrance fees and direct the individual park units to justify their decisions to not increase fees. The Interior Department agreed.