"Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded." John Muir voiced that opinion in 1908 when he was fighting the plan to flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park to provide water for San Francisco.
That sentiment is as valid today as it was more than a century ago. With national parks reeling from funding woes, making more dollars from the parks, in many cases from higher user fees, is seen by some as a logical solution to achieving fiscal sustainability for the parks.
During a breakfast seminar in Washington, D.C., this morning, 16 proposals (attached below) for raising money for the parks are being discussed at the Bipartisan Policy Center. The program, cosponsored by the National Parks Conservation Association and the National Park Hospitality Association, is intended to spur a national dialogue to identify non-appropriated funding strategies that can generate bipartisan support for the National Park System.
Some of the ideas propose tapping existing federal revenue streams, others would have park visitors pay more for a variety of park experiences,
Among the 16 ideas:
* Jigger the fee structure for visiting national parks. Recommendations within this proposal vary greatly, from boosting the $10 lifetime pass for seniors 62 and over to $80 and lowering the age of free admission for youth from 16 to 12, to charging international visitors more than U.S. citizens and changing entrance fees to a daily, not weekly, fee. Another suggestion would have entrance fees calculated per person, not per vehicle-load.
* Higher gas taxes. This proposal calls for a single penny increase in the federal fuel tax, something that would generate an estimated $1.5 billion annually for the parks.
* "Park Legacy Partnership." This proposal calls for a mix of federal oil and gas revenues and private philanthropic donations to go into a fund the National Park Service could tap for congressionally approved infrastructure projects. Estimated revenues: $350 million annually.
* Give concessionaires more business. Putting more park operations under concessionaires could not only save the Park Service money, but generate more revenues for the agency, according to this proposal. "Concessioners report that the public wants expanded services – longer operating seasons at some units, removal of time-of-day limits at others, added educational seminars and special events other services like Wi-Fi. As well, current regulation of pricing of services limits concession-provided products, services and revenues. Strategies like dynamic pricing would help concessioners encourage non-peak visitation. Authorizing 'satellite' services in nearby parks without prospectus, bidding and selection processes could boost visitation at lesser visited park units."
* Create an endowment. This proposal calls for creation of a $1 billion endowment for the parks, one fueled by "private and other nonfederal contributions, federal tax reform, and/or oil, gas, and other mineral production on federal lands and waters, and NPS fee-related revenue." Such a proposal has been suggested in the past, but has failed to gain traction. "The launch of an endowment could be aided immensely by a centennial-oriented campaign that builds awareness and encourages individual and corporate contributions," reads the proposal.
* Guest donations. Already some concessionaires ask lodging guests to donate $1 per night of their stay to the the National Park Service through the National Park Foundation. "The Guest Donation Program will generate approximately $1 million in donations in 2013 at approximately 12 park units and could be rapidly restructured and expanded with a goal of collecting at least $10 million annually by 2016 and sustained indefinitely while at the same time better connecting visitors to the national parks, the National Park Foundation and local friends and advocacy organizations," the proposal notes. Expanding the program to encourage donations from day visitors to the parks, and from visitors to gateway communities surrounding the parks, could benefit this revenue stream, according to the proposal.
* Get more help from the states. The National Park Service should seek 10 percent of the "billions of dollars" raised annually by states and local governments through lodging, food, and other service taxes. Combining these revenues with services provided by Destination Marketing Organizations could generate $20 million a year for parks, the proposal estimates. These revenues could be used for a wide variety of projects, from enhanced Wi-Fi and cellphone service in the parks and smartphone apps to revenues for search-and-rescue costs and information centers in major tourism centers areas outside of parks.
* Investment programs. "Concessioner franchise fees and fees from the NPS leasing program at both the Washington and Park levels could be invested in non-appropriated fund instrumentalities (NAFIs). These investment vehicles would allow franchise fee and lease fee proceeds to earn interest, providing additional funding for the general Commercial Services Program or for the Parks for which a NAFI has been created."
* Park Zone Taxes. Gateway communities should be encouraged to raise taxes -- sales, property, lodging, for example -- to benefit the parks. "As one example to provide some context, retail sales in Estes Park, Colorado, in 2007 totaled $104 million. The community currently has a sales tax of 7.5%, with shares from the state, the town, and the county. An additional one-half of 1% tax dedicated to neighboring Rocky Mountain National Park would generate approximately $500,000 per year. Retail sales in 2007 in Sevier County, Tennessee, home to the town of Gatlinburg, were $1.6 billion, thus the same one-half of 1% sales tax would generate $8 million per year for nearby Great Smoky Mountain National Park."
In a cover letter to this fistful of proposals, both the National Parks Conservation Association and the National Park Hospitality Association stress they have not accepted or endorsed any of the proposals.
Rather, these are discussion points intended to spur brainstorming into ways that sustainable, non-appropriated funding can be generated for the national parks. In the coming months the groups hope to pull together various fund-raising approaches to present to the "Congress and the Administration in conjunction with the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016 and our fervent desire to keep our parks relevant in a dynamic nation."