Tight budgets spur NPS push for more private funding

Posted: Apr 22, 2013

Written by

Emily Yehle, Greenwire
Going-to-the-Sun Road

Five years ago this week, the Gettysburg National Military Park welcomed a $103 million museum and visitor center, complete with relics from the Battle of Gettysburg, interactive exhibits and a film narrated by actor Morgan Freeman.

But the park didn't pick up the tab -- the Gettysburg Foundation did. And now the nonprofit pays to run the center, from electricity bills to cleaning services.

Private support for national parks is nothing new. But NPS Director Jon Jarvis hopes to see more of it, expanding the role of foundations to help buoy the National Park Service as its fiscal future becomes more uncertain.

In the coming months, Jarvis plans to propose a legislative package that, among other things, will ask Congress for more flexibility when it comes to private partnerships. The details are unclear; an NPS spokesman declined to elaborate because the proposal is still "in development."

But Jarvis hinted at its contents this week when he testified at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

NPS would be asking Congress, he said, to "grant additional authorities for philanthropy, for cooperative agreements, to work with our private-sector partners in a much more entrepreneurial and innovative way to bring that side to the operation and financial health of the organization."

In other words: NPS wants to spur more private donations, partly through the National Park Foundation. At a House appropriations subcommittee hearing last week, Jarvis told lawmakers that while the foundation now raises about $20 million annually, it has the potential to raise "well over $100 million."

That could be done by boosting the foundation's profile and attracting corporate and philanthropic partners, he said. But he emphasized that some costs should still be shouldered by the federal government.

"I do believe that there is an inherent federal taxpayer responsibility to these places to basically operate them," he said, but "that bright line of excellence, that next phase, that next piece where we can ... take care of things like education, climate change" is ripe for private fundraising.

The visitor center at Gettysburg hints at the possibilities -- and indeed, when it was proposed in the late 1990s, NPS held it up as a model for future public-private partnerships. Because the foundation pays to run the center, the park is free to spend its federal funds on other priorities, such as preservation and education.

The foundation also donates profits from museum fees to the park every year; this year, that came to $393,000. The result is a park that is more resilient and less affected by the fiscal uncertainties that plague agencies as Congress aims to cut government spending.

Sequestration has put that advantage in stark relief. As NPS begins to implement the across-the-board budget cuts that began last month, Gettysburg will fare better than other parks. Some important positions will go unfilled, and some supplies unbought, but the park won't be reducing hours or delaying maintenance.

Other parks are also getting help from nonprofit partners to soften the blow. The Glacier National Park Conservancy is contributing $10,000 to help plow the park's Going-to-the-Sun Road. At Yellowstone National Park, a foundation is donating $600,000 for projects that would otherwise not get done under sequestration, including the restoration of cutthroat trout (Greenwire, April 15).

Whether Jarvis plans to build on such local partnerships is still unclear. NPS declined to detail specific proposals in the upcoming legislative package, which is aimed at encouraging investment in national parks to mark the Park Service's 100th anniversary in 2016.

In the past, the Park Service has proposed a federal fund that would match private donations for specific projects and improvements. That would be ambitious in the current fiscal atmosphere.

But NPS could also ask that some restrictions be lifted on how the agency spends private dollars. For example, such funds can only be used for nonrecurring costs or projects; the only reason the Gettysburg Foundation is able to pay utilities is because it owns the building and the land it sits on.

'Other means of paying'

The Park Service may enjoy a warmer reception in Congress for such ideas than it has in the past.

A 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office detailed "concerns" from Congress and the public about "the potential for donors to have undue influence over agency priorities, for parks to become commercialized, and for partnership projects to create new operations and maintenance costs for the Park Service to absorb."

Plans for the Gettysburg visitor center were met with congressional skepticism, prompting several hearings between 1998 and 2002. Other public-private partnerships have been criticized for skewed priorities; in 2007, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility argued that the Bush administration's Centennial Initiative plan merely attracted money for "questionable projects" that did not address the park system's growing maintenance backlog.

But lawmakers have recently encouraged Jarvis to look for other streams of revenue.

The National Parks Conservation Association and the National Park Hospitality Association floated some ideas for gaining extra cash at a forum last month at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Possibilities ranged from raising the federal gas tax by 1 cent to establishing a fund that would use revenues from oil and gas production on federal lands along with private donations.

At that forum, former Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) said he supported that idea, saying it was similar to one he tried to push through about nine years ago (E&ENews PM, March 19).

"I think there's a lot of good ideas here," Dicks said. "In this climate, it's going to be very difficult [to find funds], but you've got to keep trying."

At a hearing last week of the House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, Chairman Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) expressed interest in whether the Park Service thought such ideas "had merit." Jarvis said his agency was looking closely at them -- "very, very closely."

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), the subcommittee's top Democrat, also voiced support for private revenue streams and raised the prospect of higher entrance fees to parks, which currently range from $5 to $20 and result in about $160 million in revenues each year. Those funds are used for projects and events but cannot be used for operational costs.

The Park Service's fee authority expires in 2014; at this point, the agency is seeking a continuation of current fees.

Moran predicted that budget woes would force the Park Service "to find other means of paying for the upkeep and the preservation of our national parks."

"I do hope that we will re-evaluate fees, and I think we ought to look at concessions," Moran said. "What's going to happen is we're going to get bombarded by just raising the possibility, but that's just human nature. People want everything they can get for free, most people."

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