To quote Wallace Earle Stegner, winner of the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
The Department of Interior recently announced a proposal to increase entry fees to 17 National Parks, in some cases doubling and tripling existing fees during peak months. The parks that would be subject to these increases would be Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Denali, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Zion, Acadia, Rocky Mountain, Shenandoah, Joshua Tree as well as Mount Rainer and Olympic. Fees per auto would rise to $70, a motorcycle $50, and entry on foot to $30. Not quite as much as what commercial amusement parks, such as Six Flags, Disneyland and Epcot charge, but then again, the National Parks are not private ventures.
To quote Franklin D. Roosevelt, “There is nothing so American as our national parks…. The fundamental idea behind the parks… is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.” The original concept behind the National Parks creation in 1916 was “… to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” [1916 National Park Service Organic Act]
See the USA in Your Chevrolet
Subsequent to Theodore Roosevelt creating the first national monuments under the 1905 Antiquities Act, realizing the potential attractiveness of these destinations, many of the original lodging within the parks were built and operated by or in partnership with the railroads, by the private sector, appealing to, and affordable to, only the elite of the time. This changed with the automobile and the post-WWII period of prosperity. Visitation of the National Parks grew exponentially. A trip to the National Parks was viewed as an affordable vacation destination for the lower and middle classes.
It is estimated that this increase in entry fees will generate approximately $70 million, which would be earmarked to reducing the $11 billion backlog of park repair and maintenance of deteriorating buildings, restrooms, roads, etc. Though not an insignificant amount of money, gaining $70 million from increased entry fees could pale in comparison to lost revenues if this precipitates any reduction in attendance in these 17 parks.
A study titled Declining National Park Visitation – An Economic Analysis done in 2014 by researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that:
…Results suggest that entrance fees have had a statistically significant but small impact on per capita attendance. Increasing fuel prices (travel costs) relative to income has had a more significant effect suggesting that park policies reducing the cost of attendance may be desirable… growing wealth of the middle class was a prime factor that drove the increasing demand for park visitation during the 1950’s and 60’s. Today, however, middle-class incomes have stagnated or declined, while trip costs have grown substantially… Our data show that the demand for national park visits is inelastic, so that, if simple revenue generation is a goal, the national parks probably could increase entry fees without having major impacts on visitation… the average entry fee in our study was $12.77, … 4.6 percent of total daily cost for overnight visitors, but 32 percent of a trip cost for day users.
A concern voiced in the study was that, in the future, the cost of visiting a national park — entry fees, food, gas, and lodging — could make visits to the NPS too expensive for its historic base, i.e., the lower and middle classes.
Any reduced attendance would no doubt have far-reaching impact. In 2016, the 40 million visitors to these 17 parks spent an estimated $4.3 billion on camping, gas, groceries, restaurants, hotels and recreation within the parks and local gateway communities. A loss of 5 percent park attendance could cause a drop in revenue of more than $214 million to the NPS and its gateway communities.
Surveys of park visitors have generally found that they consider the existing entry fees to represent a good value, but that may change when these fees are doubled and tripled, posing the potential question, “Kids, you want to go to a national park or Disneyland?”
The National Parks — They’re Not Just the Grand Canyon and Yosemite
The NPS system is responsible for not just such iconic parks as Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Death Valley and Yosemite, but also such places as the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Mall, The Vietnam Memorial, The Lincoln Memorial, the White House, Ford’s Theater and George Washington Memorial Bridge and Parkway. Currently, the 2018 NPS budget has a funding request of $262 million allocated to implement repairs to the Memorial Bridge which crosses the Potomac between Washington D.C. and Virginia, a bridge carrying 68,000 commuters a day.
This is not the only commuter bridge or highway the NPS maintains. The National Park Service is responsible for maintaining approximately 5,500 miles of paved roads, 4,100 miles of gravel roads, 1,442 bridges and 63 tunnels.
Don’t Harm the Golden Goose
Something often overlooked is that the NPS is an economic engine for the United States, contributing over $34.9 billion annually to the national economy, and over 318,000 jobs. Spending in the parks and the immediate surrounding areas generate $18.4 billion. Revenue generated within the parks is estimated at over $6 billion. More than 13 million foreigners visit national parks and monuments annually. By all data and indicators, the NPS is a money maker, a profit center for the Federal government, for the people of the United States.
Those Lazy Government Workers
An often used metric to evaluate the performance of a company is revenue per employee. Based upon this metric, the NPS looks pretty good, generating over $325,000 per employee (only taking into account direct revenues generated by in-park revenues). That’s more than four times Marriot International’s $75,000 per employee, more than three times Hyatt’s $98,442 and almost eight times Starwood’s $41,220.
Don’t Starve Our Cash Cow
There is no question the NPS is in crisis, with an extensive backlog of basic repairs and maintenance estimated at $12 billion. The NPS FY 2018 discretionary budget request of $2.6 billion is $296.6 million below the FY 2017 budget, and proposes a reduction of 6.4 percentage of its workforce, a reduction of 1,242 full-time employees (FTE).
By their own admission and analysis, the Department of the Interior states in their Budget Justification and Performance Information for fiscal 2018 report:
… At these levels, visitors and partners will experience service reductions, and remaining employees will face heavier workloads. At this funding level, nearly 90 percent of parks would reduce their current staffing levels, leading to a reduction in services to the public. Likewise, support programs would also experience staffing and service level reductions, which further impacts parks.
This proposed budget runs counter to the desire and opinion of the majority of the American public, who believe the federal government should spend more money on the NPS, as well as basic business fundamentals for running a successful and profitable business. To quote comedian George Carlin’s not so funny observation on the high demand for campsites, often necessitating making reservations far in advance of a planned visit, “…When you have to wait a year to sleep next to a tree, something is wrong.”
We Have an Arterial Bleed Here
Raising entry fees to the National Parks to pay for repairs and maintenance is using a band-aid where a tourniquet is needed. Cutting the NPS budget and personnel is the equivalent of a hotel allowing their sheets and towels to fray, not cleaning their carpets, and laying off staff when they are already understaffed and have 99 percent occupancy.
If the NPS were being run by business people like a business, as seems to be the mantra of this administration, and demanded by its appointees, the NPS budget would be increased not decreased. Measures to repair facilities and handle increased attendance at National Parks would be financed and implemented on an accelerated basis.
Instead, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke proposes reducing the size of the NPS, both its staff, park and monument properties, cutting its budget and outsourcing operations. During a speech before the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, he voiced his desire to outsource such aspects of running the National Park System as campgrounds. Secretary Zinke stated, “…As the secretary, I don’t want to be in the business of running campgrounds …My folks will never be as good as you are …We’ll be looking at where our employees should be spending their time. …Yes, cleaning the bathrooms. But actually running services, that’s something we should be pushing to somebody who’s updated and knows the market better…”
Secretary Zinke hasn’t looked at his statistics. The NPS employee productivity is stellar when compared to the majority of private sector leisure and hospitality operations. I believe the career employees of the NPS do know what they are doing, and could probably do an even better job if given the resources. And no, Secretary Zinke, they are loyal to the flag. You don’t get rich working for the NPS.
Justify Those Entry Fee Increases
The Department of Interior’s own budget analysis states, “…At these levels, visitors and partners will experience service reductions… At this funding level, nearly 90 percent of parks would reduce their current staffing levels, leading to a reduction in services to the public. Likewise, support programs would also experience staffing and service level reductions, which further impacts parks.”
I do not believe even the most ardent (and budget conscious) supporter of the NPS would object to an increase in park entry fees, providing they believed it would lead to an improved park visit experience. Instead, Secretary Zinke is promising a diminished experience, “…limiting the use of or closing certain areas of the parks, such as campgrounds and facilities, and reducing, adjusting, or eliminating hours of operations and visitor services… As a result, at the proposed budget levels many parks could be required to institute further reductions to services, operating hours, and the number of full-time and seasonal employees. Service-wide, these adjustments could include the elimination of thousands of seasonal employees, leaving vacancies for key positions unfilled, and offering early retirement or separation incentives to existing employees.” [Department of the Interior “BUDGET JUSTIFICATIONS and Performance Information Fiscal Year 2018]
Sorry, Secretary Zinke. Not a very persuasive argument for those fee increases. Maybe you should rethink your strategy. Maybe you should apply more conventional business practices such as utilizing actual data to support your decisions and invest in your profit centers, not starve them.
“Whatever the cost, however financed, the benefits for park visitors in health and happiness — virtues unknown to statisticians —would be immeasurable,” said Edward Abbey, noted American author and essayist.
Peter Banner, a founding member of the California-based Independent Energy Producers Association (IEP), has over 35 years of experience in the renewable energy and demand side management fields. His areas of expertise in renewables include solar, wind, biomass and small hydro.