'Thinning the blood' of the national park system

Would you pay more to visit your favorite national park? The National Park Service hopes so. The agency is proposing to increase entrance fees at many national parks across the country in an attempt to raise more revenue from visitors to help cover the cost of park operations and maintenance.

The proposal comes at a time when Congress just authorized the largest expansion of the national park system in nearly three decades — but with no plan for how to fund it.

The defense authorization bill, recently signed by President Obama, creates seven new national parks and expands nine existing parks, adding roughly 120,000 acres to the park system. The legislation, however, provides no additional funding for the expansion, which includes Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument in Nevada, the Coltsville National Historic Park in Connecticut and the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park in New York.

Meanwhile, the National Park Service faces a $12 billion backlog in deferred maintenance projects. The agency estimates that 90 percent of its roads are in "fair" to "poor" condition, dozens of bridges are "structurally deficient" and in need of reconstruction, and 6,700 miles of trails are in "poor" or "seriously deficient" condition. As the agency prepares to celebrate its 100-year anniversary in 2016, the backlog is a glaring blemish in a system known for its crown jewels.

The National Park Service will now have to fund the operations of several new parks while attempting to address the critical needs within existing parks. And with no additional funding, the latest expansion means that the maintenance backlog could grow even larger in time for the agency's centennial.

The National Parks Conservation Association called the legislation a clear sign that the Obama administration is "making national parks a national priority." But as Kurt Repanshek of the National Parks Traveler recently wrote, the plan "will not enhance, but rather degrade the overall system."

"We like to view the national parks as 'America's best idea,' and members of Congress certainly like to point to a unit in their home districts," wrote Repanshek. "But if we can't afford the 401-unit park system we have today, how can we possibly justify new units?"

Even before Congress added the new parks to the defense bill, the National Park Service was exploring the possibility of raising entrance fees in several national parks. Yellowstone, Glacier, and Grand Canyon are proposing to increase entrance fees by $5. Other parks such as Shenandoah may raise fees by $10. If approved, the new fees could come into effect in 2015.

The proposed fee hike has some questioning whether national parks are becoming too expensive. Yet such modest increases are unlikely to have a significant effect on park visitors. Entrance fees represent a small fraction of visitors' overall trip expenditures — just 1.2 to 1.5 percent by some measures — with the vast majority going to food, lodging and travel. And these higher user fees could generate much-needed funding to help address critical maintenance needs.

Thanks to legislation passed in 2004, user fees collected in parks stay within the national park system instead of getting deposited into the U.S. treasury, and 80 percent of the fees remain in the park where they were collected. This allows parks to become more self-sufficient and rely less on Congress for appropriations.

Still, the proposed fee increase will not solve the National Park Service's financial problems, nor will it provide the funding necessary to support the latest expansion to the national park system. It is, however, a small step in the right direction. By generating more revenue from visitors, park managers can fund projects based on their necessity rather than on their political appeal.

As Congress just demonstrated, politicians are often more interested in creating new parks than funding the parks that already exist. The result is what former National Park Service director James Ridenour called "thinning the blood" of the park system. To truly make national parks a national priority, we must first take care of the parks we already have. Unfortunately, with a $12 billion backlog in our national parks, that is something we have yet to do.

Regan is a research fellow at Property and Environment Research Center, a nonprofit research institute in Bozeman, Mont., and a former ranger for the National Park Service.