National parks are underfunded — overhauling fees will help

National parks are underfunded — overhauling fees will help
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Last week, a group of lawmakers joined Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeInternational hunting council disbands amid litigation Europe deepens energy dependence on Russia Overnight Energy: House Science Committee hits EPA with subpoenas | California sues EPA over Trump revoking emissions waiver | Interior disbands board that floated privatization at national parks MORE to announce their plan to tackle the $11.6 billion list of repairs for national parks. The proposal would funnel roughly half of the receipts from new federal energy development to park maintenance. 

While Congress should be applauded for focusing on the much-needed maintenance, the largely Republican-backed plan to tie energy revenues to parks isn’t a sustainable way to fund them into the future. Yet Democrats’ own solution to fund park maintenance, backed by park advocacy groups, is no more forward looking.


The maintenance backlog has ballooned so much thanks to the misaligned incentives politicians face. Cutting a ribbon on a new park is far more appealing than funding routine maintenance on sewer lines, dilapidated hiking trails, or leaky roofs. So it’s unsurprising that regardless of the political party in power, congressional appropriations for park maintenance have remained flat while the number of new parks has steadily increased over two decades.


The success and failure of our national treasures shouldn’t hinge on the whims of political funding decisions. It’s time to let the record number of visitors who have demonstrated — not just with words but also with their feet — that they cherish these wondrous places and will do their part to sustain them.

Park enthusiasts should consider the way hunters and anglers support the recreational lands they use. Sales of hunting and fishing licenses generate a steady flow of funds for wildlife conservation and habitat restoration. And proceeds from excise taxes that sportsmen and -women pay on their equipment — taxes that they lobbied for themselves in the 1930s — have provided billions in dedicated funding for outdoor recreation.

A parallel for national parks could include a menu of fees that would give the National Park Service dedicated funding independent of legislative cycles. The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which is set to expire in September, allows parks to collect some fees, but the rules are complicated and cumbersome. That helps explain why less than half of national parks charge any type of fee and why fee revenues make up less than 10 percent of all park funding.

Still, most fee collections can be retained onsite to address local needs, rather than being remitted to the Treasury to be reallocated based on partisan preferences. Many visitors would jump at the chance to contribute their fair share to our parks and would take pride in funding public lands in much the way that hunters and anglers support wildlife conservation. 

The Interior Department has proposed to raise peak-season entry fees at some parks to $70 for week-long vehicle passes. The increase aims to address funding needs, but its approach isn’t nearly flexible or responsive enough. State park systems, by contrast, use more nuanced and varied fee structures. Many state parks cost $2 to $5 per visit, charge more to reserve a campsite or other facility, and offer discounts for locals.

National parks would benefit from a combination of sensible fees and autonomy for park managers to retain and spend revenue where it’s most needed. Entry fees could be part of the equation. Recreation fees to use specific roads or amenities could be another component. 

Discounts could help low-income families get outdoors or encourage students to see historic sites. Day passes could take into account locals’ needs. Surcharges for foreign visitors (a standard practice in countries from Chile to Kenya) could provide more funding to help care for our own trails, historic sites, and national parkways. And there’s no reason that every visitor should have to pay with money — perhaps volunteering for a day of trail maintenance could earn visitors a pass to camp for a weekend.

Modest recreation fees could make a big difference over time. If Great Smoky Mountains National Park collected $2 per recreation visit, it could fund its annual operating budget. Many destination parks in the West, including Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Teton, Glacier, and the Grand Canyon, could cover their own costs if they brought in less than $10 per visit. Each of the 417 national park sites across the country might not be able to say the same. But the most-visited parks — those with the greatest infrastructure needs — could become more financially self-reliant and avoid future shortfalls.

The overwhelming maintenance backlog demands creative solutions for today. But Americans need Congress and the Interior Department to think about how to maintain parks over the long term, too — and make sure future generations will have the same opportunity to enjoy them.

Tate Watkins is a research fellow at PERC, the Property and Environment Research Center, a nonprofit institute in Bozeman, Montana, dedicated to improving environmental quality through property rights and markets.