A typical American shells out more to see one movie than their annual income taxes contribute to the National Park Service, according to the "taxpayer's receipt" calculated by a non-profit think tank.
While a ticket to a first-run movie can quickly climb past $6 (unless you go to a matinee), in 2009 the annual income taxes paid by someone with a gross salary of $34,140 included just $4.27 for the Park Service, according to calculations Third Way made on Office of Management and Budget budget allocations.
Of the $5,400 in income and FICA taxes that individual paid, another $10.50 went to public housing, $46.08 went to foreign aid, $229.17 went towards the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and $287.03 went toward the interest accumulating on the national debt.
Four dollars and 27 cents for national parks, $46.08 for foreign aid.
This is not to buttress an argument for higher income taxes or higher entrance fees to the parks, but merely to put some perspective on how much we Americans devote to "America's best idea." Or, rather, on how presidents and Congresses value the national parks. After all, they're the ones with the purse strings.
But as Third Way points out, perhaps if we all had a better idea of how our tax dollars are spent -- and this sort of receipt approach certainly shows where it goes -- we would be more proactive in telling our congressional representatives how we want our tax dollars spent.
And certainly it's something to keep in mind when reading recommendations about how to rein-in the federal budget deficit, for when all things are considered the overall National Park Service budget -- the FY2011 recommendation by President Obama (which has yet to be approved by Congress, by the way) was $2.7 billion -- is really little more than budget dust.
To put some more perspective on how we fund the National Park System -- the Yellowstones, Yosemites, Grand Tetons and Grand Canyons --, let me pull from a 2008 post that addressed just this very issue. In that post, which recounted a speech by Dr. Dwight Picaithley, a former chief historian for the Park Service, I pointed out how very, very little of the federal budget is spent on the parks.
(Dr. Pitcaithely) argued that the Park Service’s budget, currently running at about $2.3 billion, should be at least $5 billion or $6 billion to adequately meet the agency’s needs. In justifying that investment, Dr. Pitcaithley points not just to the recreational value of the National Park System, but to its educational, scientific, and preservation missions. Cast another way, when we fund the National Park Service we’re not just investing in trees and mountains and gorgeous landscapes, but in both this country’s past and its future, in both its culture and its knowledge base.
Unfortunately, we seem to have lost sight of those values and possibly have begun to take the national parks for granted, figuring they're well taken care of now and will be tomorrow.
“The chronic under-funding of the National Park Service is not now and has not been for the past 50 years a matter of money – it is a matter of priorities!” Dr. Pitcaithley told those who attended a Park Service conference in April 2008. “Five billion dollars amounts to 0.002 percent of the president’s 2008 proposed budget.”
For the sake of comparison, while the National Park Service slogs along with its insufficient budget, the Defense Department is funded at roughly $550 billion, the professor points out. Just one B-2 bomber costs $2 billion, he adds for emphasis.
“Do you really think the American people would notice if this country’s military industrial complex held one less bomber than it does today and that those funds were transferred to the National Park Service?” he wonders. “The president and Congress took less than ten minutes to determine that the economy needed an economic stimulus package totaling $150 billion. Do you think anyone would have complained if it were $148 billion? And the resulting $2 billion saving were given to the National Park Service?”
Over at the U.S. Marine Corps, Dr. Pitcaithley points to the Osprey aircraft that cost $110 million apiece. “They are currently being sent to Iraq even though military analysts believe they don’t work as designed,” he says. “Here’s the punch line: Several branches of the military are planning to purchase 400 of these flawed aircraft! Four hundred times $110 million equals $44 billion!”
The money is there. The problem, though, is we let Congress get away with more than a few decisions that are terribly misguided. The problem is that there are not enough advocates for the National Park System.
“It’s not a matter of money, it’s a matter of priorities and the National Park Service over the years has not developed a constituency that will lobby on behalf of it. The National Park Conservation Association is simply not enough and clearly no match for other park interest groups. If you doubt that in any way, consider the recent … effort by the National Rifle Association to change decades-long NPS policy on guns in parks,” says Dr. Pitcaithley. “A goofy idea by any measurement, but one that went unopposed except by a handful of editors.
Four dollars and 27 cents. Aren't the national parks worth more than that? Tell your congressional representative you think so.