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.
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."