It's a good news, bad news story. The good news is that the National Park Service's revenues increased 15 percent between 2005 and 2014. The bad news is that the increase didn't keep up with inflation, and in the end total funding for the agency actually went down by 3 percent, according to an investigation by the General Accounting Office.
According to the GAO's report, total funding for the Park Service increased in nominal dollars from $2.7 billion to $3.1 billion during this period, but annual appropriations from Congress actually decreased by 8 percent when inflation was taken into account.
Revenues from fees and donations grew for fiscal years 2005 through 2014 to varying degrees. Specifically, revenues from recreation fees, which include entrance and amenity fees for facilities such as campsites, increased from about $148 million to $186 million (26 percent). Revenues from fees from concessions operations, which comprise the vast majority of commercial service fees, nearly tripled from almost $29 million to $85 million. Meanwhile, cash donations from philanthropic sources fluctuated, ranging from $19.5 million in fiscal year 2011 to $94.7 million in fiscal year 2014.
The fiscal picture was requested by U.S. Sen. Michael Enzi, a Republican from Wyoming, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, back in 2014. At the time, the three said that the ever-growing maintenance backlog for the National Park System needs to be reversed.
"Last year alone, the National Park Service delayed more than a quarter-billion dollars in much needed maintenance projects, adding another substantial sum to the over $11.5 billion deferred maintenance backlog already threatening the health, safety, and accessibility of park visitors," the three wrote in April 2014. "To address this serious problem, we have been exploring various avenues to work towards reducing the maintenance backlog, including a comprehensive review of the National Park Service's administrative structure."
While the three Republicans don't cite in the letter what avenues they had been exploring, their request to the GAO sought:
* "A formal review of the National Park Service's administrative structure to identify and address any inefficiencies, redundancy, and opportunities for administrative savings;"
* "A review of the Recreation Fee program within the National Park Service, including a report detailing the NPS' expenditure of fee receipts and a review of how spending prioritization decisions are made," and,
* "Options for how the National Park Service can reduce its current Deferred Maintenance Backlog, including identification of underutilized revenue sources and suggestions for improving revenue streams."
The GAO report issued last week said that while the Park Service has been working to increase fees and donations, it has been handicapped to a certain degree. One problem the report noted was that the Park Service does not have the authority to increase the $10 fee for a lifetime pass to public lands, including national parks, that seniors age 62 and older can purchase.
"In addition, Park Service guidance on recreation fees directs the agency to ensure its fees are set at a reasonable level, but does not call for periodic reviews of these fees, and the agency has no plans to do so. The agency also does not require park units to provide information on decisions to not change their fees or deviate from the fee schedule because decisions about raising fees are left to the park units," the report said. "As a result, the Park Service is missing opportunities to ensure that its entrance fees are reasonable."
To that point, the Traveler learned in June 2015 that when the National Park Service's leadership team sat down in August 2014 to draw up a road map for entrance fees across the system, it built upon a study conducted more than a decade earlier. The 21st century had just dawned when the National Park Foundation contracted with McKinsey and Co., one of the country's largest and best known management consulting firms, to review the entrance fee program as it existed at the time and make recommendations for future fee levels.
"The team’s recommendations were the result of superintendent surveys of all parks; interviews with regional, park, and Washington Office staff; site visits to over 30 park areas; and a thorough analysis of fee, budget, visitation, and other data," the Park Service said in July 2001.
Five years later, a four-tier system was readied to be implemented. Under that system, the highest fee to be charged was $25 for a week in one of the country's largest parks, such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon.
When the Park Service's National Leadership Council, made up of Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, his deputies, and the park system's regional directors, gathered in August 2014 to review fees, they used that McKinsey report as their foundation, according to the agency's Washington, D.C., communications office.
The NLC did not call for a survey to see how higher entrance fees might affect visitation before establishing the new schedule. However, at the time Park Service spokeswoman Kathy Kupper said that, "previous studies conducted have shown that entrance fees are not typically a deterrent to visitors. Other stronger reasons for not visiting have been cited."
The GAO report said the Park Service's failure to require "park units to provide information supporting their decisions on not increasing entrance fee rates or increasing their fees by less than the fee schedule" hamstrings the agency's ability to properly manage the 409 units of the National Park System.
"According to a senior Park Service official, providing this information was not required because it was not compulsory that park units increase their fees. However, Federal Internal Control Standards state that for an agency to run its operations, it must have reliable and timely communication and that information is needed throughout the agency to achieve its objectives," the report said. "By not requiring that parks provide information on decisions that deviate from the fee schedule, the Park Service may not have relevant information that would help to manage changes to recreation fees more effectively and ensure that park units are taking steps to determine whether entrance fees are set at a reasonable level."
The GAO investigators also were concerned by the Park Service's lack of a plan to routinely review entrance fees charged in the park system.
"Our 2008 guide on federal user fees states that if federal user fees are not reviewed and adjusted regularly, federal agencies run the risk of undercharging or overcharging users. Moreover, Park Service guidance directs the agency to ensure its fees are set at a reasonable level, but this guidance does not direct that these fees be periodically reviewed," they wrote. "In a 2015 report, the Department of the Interior Inspector General recommended that the Park Service establish intervals for periodic reviews of its entrance fees to ensure that the fee schedule remains up to date.
"Park Service officials told us they were hesitant to commit to such reviews until FLREA is reauthorized because they were unsure if they would continue to have the authority to continue charging entrance fees. However, Park Service has not required periodic reviews of entrance fees for the 11 years that FLREA has been in place. By not regularly reviewing its entrance fee schedule, the Park Service is missing an opportunity to ensure that these fees are reasonable."
The GAO also placed some of the blame on the Park Service's fiscal picture on Congress, noting that "58 park units are prohibited by law from charging entrance fees. For example, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act prohibits the Park Service from charging entrance fees at all park units in Alaska. FLREA prohibits the Park Service from charging entrance fees at parks that lie within the District of Columbia, and the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 prohibits the Park Service from charging entrance fees at Point Reyes National Seashore," the report points out.
The Park Service did increase fees on concessionaires, and so increased revenues from that avenue between FY2005 and FY2014, and also increased the fee associated with commercial use authorizations, which are issued for programs such as guided backcountry tours, bicycling tours, and other visitor specific services. However, the Park Service's mandate to preserve and conserve natural and cultural resources at times results in a lower fee than might be possible, the GAO said.
"The law does not require the Park Service to maximize franchise fees; instead, it states that franchise fees are a lower priority than protecting, conserving and preserving park units or providing necessary and appropriate facilities and services to visitors at reasonable rates. As a result, Park Service officials told us that increasing revenues from franchise fees can be challenging," the report noted.
While the Park Service has tried to get more flexible when it comes to receiving outside donations -- the GAO report noted the agency has softened its opposition to recognizing donors in national parks, has allowed for corporate branding on vehicles under certain conditions, and dropped its prohibition against accepting donations from alcoholic beverage companies -- the GAO investigators found that several factors hamper giving. Not everyone with charitable dollars likes to support sewer projects or routine maintenance, for example, some parks are not as attractive to donors as others, and in some cases "agency employees have expressed concern about some efforts to increase philanthropic donations—particularly the recent temporary waiver on partnering with corporations, which they view as commercializing the parks."
In conclusion, the GAO recommended that:
* Congress give the Park Service and other land-management agencies the authority to increase the cost of a lifetime senior pass;
* That the Park Service regularly review entrance fees, and;
* That individual park units inform the Washington headquarters staff why they either decided not to increase fees, or why they increased them at a level lower than allowed.