A second century of greatness (Part 2): Funding strategies for parks

Posted: Feb 22, 2020


Given the iconic status of our national parks—the spirited geysers of Yellowstone,  striking gravitas of the Statue of Liberty and Kodachrome hollows of the Grand Canyon—it’s hard to imagine a time when their establishment and protection were a hard sell. But a century ago, that’s where park champions found themselves; hawking to Congress and the American people a vision of a network of parks which would safeguard our natural and cultural resources. 

In the years leading up to the founding of the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916, its proponents puzzled over how to make parks relevant to ordinary Americans and, by extension, how to build congressional support for them (and for a bureau to administer them). Some of the most fervent characters of the day in business, conservation, politics and journalism came together to solidify, brand and promote the radical idea of the parks as a source of national pride, spiritual renewal and, significantly, as an economic engine.

They did this with a massive PR blitz. Editors were wooed and scores of articles appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country. More than 350,000 copies of the National Parks Portfolio—filled with romantic depictions, photos and park pamphlets—were sent to libraries and travel bureaus. A later, condensed version, Glimpses of Our National Parks, sold 2.7 million copies. These architects of our cherished memories simply introduced Americans to their land and insisted they see it for themselves. And they did. Before 1916, few Americans could name two national parks and, by 1920, visitation exceeded one million (by 1928, it was three million).

In some ways we’re in a better place than we were 100 years ago; our national park units are world-renowned and have been the backdrops for our school trips and family outings for generations. As a result they are also, at least in theory, a broadly supported concept. But, in other ways, the clock has rewound to the dawn of the NPS. Parks are at risk and facing an uncertain future for several reasons: the recent sequestration cuts, the existing $12 billion maintenance backlog (due in part to the 15 percent drop in NPS funding over the past decade), the declining morale of Service employees and the struggle to link youth and minorities to parks (more on this in Part 1 of this blog).  

Much as they did a century ago, NPS proponents are now asking, who will fight for the integrity of parks and how will they be funded in a sustainable way?

This was the topic of a forum at the Washington, D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center recently, which discussed funding strategies from the white papers, Sustainable Supplementary Funding for America’s National Parks. It’s an effort by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and National Park Hospitality Association to spark dialogue about 16 funding ideas, and to identify other innovative initiatives.

Currently, the NPS is the keeper of 401 units, 23 national scenic and national historic trails and 58 wild and scenic rivers, which it runs with:

—Federal allocations of nearly $3 billion in discretionary and mandatory funding;

—Recreation fees (entrance cost, camping, transportation, commercial vehicles and photo and film fees) of about $230 million;

—Concessions franchise fees of roughly $100 million/yr and;

—Donations to the National Park Foundation (NPF) of around $25 million.

In its 2013 budget, despite growing needs, the NPS requested roughly $1 million less than it received from Congress last year. It will somehow rely on 218 fewer full-time employees as a result.

The 16 funding strategies are all based on weaning the NPS off appropriated money and eventually reclaiming its future from congressional capriciousness. While not terribly radical, some of the concepts will meet resistance. Here are a few of the ideas and what I see as their strengths and weaknesses:

Penny for the parks— This federal fuel tax of one cent per gallon would generate approximately $1.5 billion annually, and go toward improving roads and transportation in parks. Upside: Most Americans would likely support the nominal cost hike. Downside: It would have to be authorized and renewed by Congress, amidst fist-pounding from oil and gas lobbies.

Entry fee tweaking—A family of four pays roughly 89 cents per person per day for a week in a national park. Charging per person (and not per vehicle) and per day (instead of per week) and raising fees for international visitors and on annual and lifetime passes for seniors and disabled people are part of this scheme. Upside: Many people polled about the cost of national parks characterize it as a “bargain” and are willing to pay a little more. Downside: Many visit parks because they are not expensive and
higher fees may drive away those on the fence about cost.

‘Park zone’ taxes—These modest surcharges would be enacted in popular gateway towns, which rely heavily on park visitors for their shops, hotels and restaurants. Upside: A one-half of one percent sales tax hike in Estes Park, Colo., gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, would generate at least $500,000 additional revenue annually. Downside: While a rise in property taxes would be even more lucrative than sales tax, it would be unpopular.

“Round-up” for the parks—Asking consumers making a purchase to ‘round up’ to the next dollar has become a popular fundraising tactic for many charities. Lodging and dining guests, and maybe gift store shoppers could be asked for this minimal donation while being educated about their investment (Round up to keep the toilets flushing!). Upside: It requires minimal effort on the part of the donor. Downside: It’s too easy to saying no.

Boost franchise income—This would be achieved by expanding the length of time lodging and dining facilities would be open and, potentially, their uses. Upside: Parks could capitalize on popular recreation pursuits like ‘glamping’. Downside: Expanding how and when visitors can be in parks would be a lengthy process and may rely on adequate NPS staffing. This idea should also have addressed increasing the percentage of income which concessioners pay parks (currently about 12 percent).

Expand volunteerism—In the past five years, nearly 2.5 million volunteers have given more than 97 million hours (an estimated value of $2.1 billion in services) to the park system. Upside: There is a ready army looking to support parks in this way, and further engaging regional and national groups and corporate partners could grow this initiative. Downside: There needs to be adequate NPS staff to support these efforts.

The National Parks Conservation Association and National Park Hospitality Association, who published the white papers, are asking for your innovative funding ideas at parksnext100years@gmail.com.

Two ideas I’ll be sending to the NPCA revolve around donations. First, there’s no quick and easy way to give to the parks’ foundation. A crowd sourcing campaign leading up to the NPS Centennial should make texting “PARKS” from one’s mobile device to donate dollars a function available at all times. It should be publicized widely at parks, at visitor centers, in park literature and on every NPS unit web page.

My second thought is that parks need to be asking visitors for money on their way out. Volunteers could staff an exit gate, or area, and ask for feedback on visits: What was your favorite part of the day? How much do you think your experience was worth? Could you make a donation to support parks right now? Studies done a few years back by University of Rochester researchers showed that people exposed to nature were far more giving, on the spot, than their counterparts immersed in urban life.

During the push to create the NPS a century ago, supporters sold the parks to their fellow Americans with a mix of romanticism and pragmatism. Robert Sterling Yard, the author of the National Parks Portfolio wrote, “The national parks are far more than recreational areas. They are the supreme examples; they are the gallery of masterpieces. Here the visitor enters in a holier spirit; here is inspiration.” He described them as places where, “The mind strips itself of affairs, as one sheds a coat.”

While his boss, the first NPS director, Stephen Mather often spoke of the calm and healing he experienced in parks, he recognized their economic potential as well. And he was right. The Service’s peer-reviewed report on economic benefits to communities showed that, in 2011, national park visitation generated over $30 billion while supporting 252,000 jobs. Gateway areas, in particular, are so reliant on visitors getting to parks that when sequestration cuts threatened to delay the opening of Yellowstone’s east entrance by two weeks this year, the town of Cody promised to match donations with $50,000 of its own. The snow plowing delay would have meant a $2 million loss in tourism-related revenue and taxes in the Wyoming town.

In the time leading up to the NPS Centennial in 2016, we will likely celebrate our romantic views of parks and should emphasize the symbiosis between parks and our economy, and we should also recognize the often unspoken natural capital that lies within; biodiversity, air-scrubbing trees and untainted water, to name a few.

Most importantly, we need to acknowledge that we now are at a unique moment in history. We are responsible for heralding these extraordinary collective resources into the next century—a formidable but exciting task. How great the coming century will be is up to us. As the original NPS architects did, we have to use our passion to drive innovative, sustainable funding ideas forward. Send your funding visions to parksnext100years@gmail.com.

~Heather Hansen

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