Outdoor recreation has never been more popular — and more in need of funding
If this summer is anything like the last, more and more vacations will be spent touring national parks, camping in national forests, or visiting the other hundreds of millions of acres of U.S. recreation lands.
While visits to public lands have been surging for a decade, much of the funding to maintain and improve them has been stagnant or declining. The lack of attention shows in washed out trails and crumbling infrastructure across the country. Taken together, national parks and forests need $17 billion in repairs that have been postponed for lack of funding.
Politicians have proven either unable or unwilling to care for public lands adequately. But hikers and bikers, kayakers and campers, and recreationists of all stripes have the chance to fund a promising future for public lands by looking to themselves rather than Congress for solutions.
Last year, 28 national parks set visitation records. Ideally, that sort of popularity and appreciation for our parks would be channeled into better care of them. Instead, congressional funding to the National Park Service has hardly budged for at least a decade after adjusting for inflation. Meanwhile, the agency’s full-time workforce has been slashed by 8 percent over the past five years even as systemwide visitation surged 15 percent.
It all adds up to having to do more — and serve more visitors — with less.
The typical response from recreation interests has been to clamor for more money from Congress. For instance, in lobbying for public lands funding, the Outdoor Industry Association often touts that the outdoor sector is an $887 billion powerhouse. Unfortunately, bleating to politicians for bigger budgets hasn’t convinced them. Our legislature remains more interested in holding ribbon-cutting ceremonies for new parks than repairing existing trails or wastewater systems.
It’s not terribly surprising that public lands get short shrift. Divvying up taxpayer dollars is an inherently political process, and the federal government of the 21st century is looking more and more like an insurance company with a side gig in national defense than an entity interested in responsibly managing parks and forests. Medicare is projected to start missing payments in 2026. Social Security is not far behind.
Amid this context, there’s a surefire way for recreationists to guarantee reliable funding — take a more direct role. Hunters and anglers have helped fund efforts to conserve and improve the resources they care about for decades by purchasing licenses, tags and stamps. Proceeds from federal excise taxes on firearms, fishing gear and related items provide additional revenues that are apportioned to states for conservation and recreation.
Because these sources are linked to recreational demand, they’ve proven to be remarkably stable for decades. State hunting and fishing licenses brought in $1.6 billion last year — nearly four times the $425 million that Congress devoted to the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Excise taxes on gear related to fishing and shooting generated another $1.1 billion for state fish and wildlife agencies.
Year after year, these sources provide dedicated revenue regardless of who happens to be in the White House, who happens to chair the House Natural Resources Committee and how much money either wants to devote to outdoor recreation.
While tax dollars may remain the primary means to support public lands, appropriations alone haven’t cut it. There’s no good reason to be close minded about hybrid funding frameworks. After all, the fact that tax dollars might be used to fund public transit doesn’t mean that riders don’t pay fares as well.
Users already fund certain recreation opportunities directly. Paying for admission to a national park or buying a campground permit to stay in one generates revenue for that park. But rather than making user-generated funds the cornerstone of sustainable recreation, they remain more the exception than the norm. The National Park Service brings in far more fee revenue than any other agency, yet fee receipts equal less than 10 percent of the agency’s budget.
Leaving the management of recreation lands to politicians hasn’t been enough to maintain, let alone improve, them. More creative and flexible funding mechanisms stand a chance to succeed where politics has failed.
Tate Watkins is a research fellow at PERC — the Property and Environment Research Center — a nonprofit institute in Bozeman, Montana, and author of the new report “How We Pay to Play: Funding Outdoor Recreation on Public Lands in the 21st Century.”