Washington’s backward funding: How national parks are encouraged to defer maintenance

 

While the government shutdown dragged on last month, the National Park Service made headlines for our decision to use unspent fee revenues to fund basic operations at many national parks. Some questioned the use of such revenues to operate parks, raising an important yet often overlooked question: How should parks use fees?

As the superintendent of Denali National Park and someone with three decades experience working for the National Park Service, I have some idea. I was there when Congress changed the law to allow national parks to retain fees. While I am not a lawyer, and I speak only for myself, I disagree with the political uproar over our decision to keep parks open using fee revenues. This decision makes sense and is long overdue.

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I joined the National Park Service in 1993 and by 1996 had become comptroller of Yellowstone National Park. At Yellowstone, we had significant funding constraints and decided to close a popular campground. Although we charged camping fees that exceeded the costs of operating the campground, at that time the fees were deposited into general U.S. Treasury accounts, not into park accounts. During a visit to the park, members of Congress realized that the existing law needed to be improved.  Earlier, Congress had passed legislation to “demonstrate the feasibility of user-generated cost recovery for the operation and maintenance of recreation areas.” The “Fee Demonstration Program” limited participating parks and stipulated that revenue could be used only for operations and backlogged maintenance projects.

At Yellowstone, we highlighted the need for operations increases. Washington bureaucrats underscored deferred maintenance. Ultimately, the National Park Service enacted policies favoring backlogged maintenance, and the notion that “fees should not be used for operations” took hold. While we hoped to receive fee revenues and increased appropriations, congressional staff told us that they could only authorize revenue retention given the budget caps on appropriations. Public support for the program was high, provided that most revenue was retained locally to pay for visitor services. 

Two things happened quickly as a result of park managers prioritizing increased operational funding. 

First, fee language was changed in 1998 to allow the National Park Service to keep all recreational user fees systemwide. Park managers were thus authorized to use all our campground fees (presumably to keep campgrounds open), and entrance fees across the system could be used for most park operations and/or deferred maintenance. 

Second, Congress authorized us to retain fees from concessions, the income derived from contracts for services provided by private vendors operating within parks. This statute stipulated that fees were for “visitor services and high-priority and urgently necessary resource management programs and operations.” The notion of “deferred maintenance” was dropped in favor of operations.

In 2004, Congress replaced the Fee Demonstration Program with the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which remains in effect today. The act authorized fees to be used for park operations related to visitor services and impacts. Importantly, the legislation was silent on any implied or stated preference for deferred maintenance. Within the National Park Service, the internal debate over the relative priority of spending fees on operations (superintendents’ preference) or deferred maintenance (Washington’s preference) remained.  Headquarters won again, and we crafted policies governing fees that prioritize deferred maintenance.

These policies create strange incentives for superintendents. Because we can spend fees on backlogged maintenance but not on the regular maintenance required to keep the backlog from growing, we are encouraged to defer maintenance (an expensive, nonsensical choice).  Similarly, funding to support a bureaucracy to ensure compliance with internal policy despite clear statutory direction is excessive and should instead be directed at our core mission.

The bottom line is that fees are now an integral part of our funding. Long ago, Congress realized it could not meet parks’ needs through annual appropriations, and legislators thus authorized us to keep our revenues.  The National Park Service should embrace using fees to pay for visitor services. Park visitors and resources should not be held hostage during a lapse in appropriations. Congress has given us the tools, via our fee authorities, to ensure that they are not. Our acting Interior secretary and acting parks director have allowed us to do what has long made sense. These public servants should be congratulated for making sound business choices, overturning decades of politically motivated policy.

Good public policy incentivizes government managers to “do the right thing.”  It is time to develop a practical, efficient business model for national park fees.

Don Striker is the superintendent of Denali National Park. His opinions do not reflect an official position of the National Park Service.