Entrance Fees Generate Hundreds of Millions of Dollars A Year for National Park Service

Hundreds of millions of dollars enter national parks each year through entrance gate stations such as this one in Yosemite National Park. NPT file photo.

Millions of times a year someone drives up to the entrance station at a national park, hands the attendant some money, and heads off into the park. Did you ever stop to think how much money the National Park Service takes in every year from these exchanges?

The answer is not just millions of dollars, but nearly $200 million.

That number jumped out from President Obama's FY2011 budget proposal for the Park Service. Here's what the related "briefing document" had to say about gate revenues at national parks:

The majority of the revenues return directly to the park where they were collected. The NPS estimates that it will collect $173.0 million in revenues in 2011. The program is carrying substantial balances and has implemented rigorous action plans to draw down the balances to reasonable levels. The NPS plans to obligate $223.0 million in recreation fees in 2011 which will reduce the unobligated balances to under $100.0 million, a reduction of over 30 percent from the previous year. In 2010, half of the revenues collected were spent on asset repairs and maintenance, 20 percent on interpretation and visitor services, and ten percent on habitat restoration. The remaining 20 percent of recreation fee revenue was spent on operations and administrative activities such as law enforcement, cost of collecting fees, and visitor reservation services. This program has been very successful in improving the condition of the park assets.

A number of other things jumped out from that assessment. One, a lot of "unobligated" dollars have piled up in the agency's coffers; two, half of the income is being spent on repairs and maintenance, and; three, a scant 20 percent is being spent on visitor services, and even less on habitat restoration.

Which got us here at the Traveler thinking. Why aren't tax dollars paying for the bulk of the National Park System's operations and maintenance, and why aren't these entrance fees being used to benefit the visitors through more visitor services and interpretation, and for restoring, if not enhancing, habitat? The so-called "margin of excellence" investments. After all, the National Park Service Organic Act defines the Park Service's core mandate as conserving "the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

Jane Moore, the agency's fee program manager in Washington, D.C., fielded our questions.

"Fee funds have been used to fund 'visitor-related' deferred maintenance projects (ie., restrooms, roads, trails, drinking water, repair and rehab of historic structures, exhibits, rehab of visitor centers). In 2009, approximately $100 million in fee money was used for visitor-related maintenance," said Ms. Moore. "In 2010 and 2011 we are planning to spend approximately $80 million in visitor-related deferred maintenance. Since the fee program began, nearly $762 million has been spent on visitor-related deferred maintenance projects."

As to whether the Park Service was concerned that Congress might see this flow of hundreds of millions of dollars and decide it didn't need to appropriate as much money for the parks, Ms. Moore said that was a legitimate concern.

"It is an on-going concern. There is a significant amount of deferred maintenance that needs to be addressed and Congress and OMB (Office of Management and Budget) continue to require the NPS to use a variety of fund sources (including fees) to meet this unfunded need," said Ms. Moore. "The NPS has established policies to try and ensure that fee revenue is used only for deferred maintenance projects which have a direct visitor connection. This policy helps to ensure that visitors can see how their fee dollars directly benefit the parks and enhance their experience."

Among the projects planned for some of the millions include:

* An entrance station at Denali National Park and Preserve, $5.6 million, Fiscal Year 2050

* Rehabilitation of the South Campground at Zion National Park, $6.6 million, FY2011

* Build an accessible walkway and nature trail at the Province Lands Visitor Center at Cape Cod National Seashore, $644,000, Fy2012

* Build the Bodie Island Bike Path at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, $786,945, FY2010

* "Updating" campground and picnic grounds at Devils Tower National Monument, $560,472, FY2010

* Replace the electrical system at the Wawona Tunnel, Yosemite National Park, $2.9 million, FY2010

* Repair and stabilize the Yorktown River shoreline to protect Colonial National Historical Park, $1.4 million, FY2010

* "Mitigate" hazard trees caused by bark beetle infestations in campgrounds at Rocky Mountain National Park, $6.3 million, FY2010

In past years, according to Ms. Moore, the Park Service has spent about $1.4 billion on such projects as "restroom upgrades, new visitor centers, road and trail improvements, historic building restorations, campground rehab, sign upgrades, upgrades of water and sewage facilities, transportation systems, removal of invasive species, restoration of historic structures, implementing new ranger programs, expanded lifeguard services, new visitor safety programs, new publications, new and upgraded interpretive exhibits and AV programs, accessibility projects, expansion of youth programs..."

As for the somewhat hefty carry-over balances, which have approached $200 million annually, she explained that one reason for the big figure is that some parks "bank" their fee dollars until they have enough to afford the project they have in mind, such as visitor centers or transportation systems.

"It might take a park 3-5 years to save up enough funds to complete a major project," explained Ms. Moore. "At some parks, projects have required extensive planning and compliance which delayed getting funds committed. There were also a number of park specific issues that delayed progress: hurricanes, weather and constructions delays, litigation in the case of Yosemite (GMP/planning modifications to park facilities resulting from the historic flood they had).

"Grand Canyon was banking funds for their transportation system, while they were exploring transit options," she went on. "Another reason that fee funds weren't spent as quickly as the NPS had hoped was because other competing fund sources such as appropriated funds that have a one-year shelf life, vs. fee funds that are no year money. Priority is always given to spending funds that will expire if not spent."

As to why relatively little of this money is being spent on natural resource stewardship projects, Ms. Moore said that there is no specific percentage breakdown for how the income should be spent among facilities, infrastructure, or natural resources. Rather, "it has more to do with the priorities set by each park and what their individual needs and funding sources are," she explained.

"The main requirement is that parks spend fee funds that are compliant with the expenditure categories identified in the law and within NPS policy. In the past, there has been emphasis placed on doing 'defered maintenence (DM) projects,' partly because OMB set dollar targets for DM for the NPS (from multiple fund sources)," added Ms. Moore. "Addressing DM is still an important goal for the NPS, but the new administration is also interested in funding other high-priority needs, including resource preservation/sustainability, visitor service improvements, education and youth programs."

A flaw in the program, in light of the huge dollar numbers involved, is that the Park Service has no authority to invest the money while waiting for it to be spent.

"Currently there is no legislative authority to utilize interest-bearing accounts for fee funds," said Ms. Moore. "It's an interesting idea, but would require both legislative action and modifying the way our accounting processes work. Currently the majority of fee funds are allocated back to regions and parks to allow them to commit funds to specific projects. Funds are not maintained in one central location."

Comments


"unobligated balances"? "no authority to utilize interest-bearing accounts" on a 200 million carry over balance? That is 10 mill at 5%.

Lord have mercy, this is depressing!

Now, you guys have been giving Beamis, our the-parks-should-go-private voice, an awfully hard time. But this is pretty messed up.

Kurt, keep up the great work!

Interesting but not surprising. Given the way the Federal government works, the parks are probably banking the money waiting to see what gets authorized under annual appropriations before committing their own money.

One thing I did not gather was how the money could be spent. I think anything over $100K in the Federal System requires a competition and contract versus the under $100K being allowed to be spent.

How exactly does a park go about spending their income? Would it also not favor it the popular parks getting more gate revenue then the non-popular parks.

Also remember not all parks can charge gate fees, they are restricted by the enabling legislation that created the park. Look at Wright Brothers charging a gate fee versus the rest of Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

I think further investigation is warranted.

Rick

First, a question: Does the park that sells an America The Beautiful Pass keep that money, or does it go into a central NPS fund?

I'm assuming that this article pertains to fees collected that are separate from ATB funds, such as day/week use fees, proprietary park passes, campground fees, etc.

As explained in the article, the $200 million figure is not a single lump sum sitting in a single account. That figure is a total of carryover dollars sitting in individual parks across the country.
I think it might be best to NOT create a central account for these dollars, considering how congress chooses to handle government surplus. I do not relish the thought of all of my fee dollars going into a giant federal kitty, perhaps to be appropriated away to parks far from home that I will never visit.

The majority of fee dollars stays with the park that collected it, and that's the way it should be.

If you're concerned with how your nearest national park spends it's fee monies, get involved and get vocal at that park. Join your local park's friends group or cooperating association, and raise dollars to be used locally, and voice your opinions on how those dollars that you helped raise be spent.
But do we really want all of this money to go into some central account, where it can potentially be used to suit the political agenda of the administration holding office at any given time?
I'm much more comfortable knowing that the dollars I spend locally stay local, and are used for things that improve my experience here.
I agree with how my local national park spends it's monies, and if it takes a few years to bankroll enough dollars to get the projects done that make the most overall sense to the management of this park, so be it, interest earned or not.

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I also see this debate drifting into the preservation versus visitation arena. So I would just like to add that it seems logical to me that the majority of fee dollars, coming out of visitor pockets, should be spent to maintain and improve the experiences that a visitor will have.