It’s no secret that budgets are being heavily scrutinized from the local to federal level, but thankfully nearly everyone is in support of finding a way to fund our national parks.
The $12 Billion Park Project Backlog
We’ve mentioned the $12 billion project backlog that the National Park Service (NPS) has been wrestling with in one of our previous posts, but the problem is bigger than you might imagine. The National Park Service is given roughly $3 billion per year to tackle these problems, but it takes nearly one third of their budget to keep the list from getting any longer. That leaves the department with just over $2 billion to tackle non-critical projects. In short, anything that wouldn’t keep the 59 National Parks from opening has to be covered with $2 billion.
Congressional Chaos for National Park Funding
Like many federal agencies, Congress is responsible for allocating the budget for NPS. What makes park repairs a bit more challenging is that not all of the money is set-aside in the same bill. Over 5,500 miles of road within the nearly 84 million acres of land are allotted resources independent of actual park funding. While it sounds like a trivial detail, those repairs make up about half of the backlog and the NPS struggles to cover them.
Alaska’s National Parks Get the Green Light to Hire
Though the budget is tight, things are being done to keep our parks operating normally. Alaska is home to 24 parks that receive over 2.6 million visitors a year. Despite an estimated one trillion dollars in economic benefit for the state, it was only recently that they were given the OK from the White House to hire their usual seasonal park staff. While the park staff was stressed about the federal employee-hiring freeze, these seasonal employees will be able to help with a number of critical roles to keep the parks open.
Local Parks Get Creative to Stay Open
State parks have their own issues to contend with in the long-standing trend of budget cuts. Since 2010, state parks have been closing, cutting hours, and cutting educational programs. Some states are being hit harder than others such as Oklahoma. They may lose half of their state parks due to budget cuts this year.
In states like Arizona, the cuts to the budget have required more drastic measures, including turning ownership of state parks over to their counties. In Utah, they’ve begun contracting with private companies to offer additional services and activities for an additional cost to visitors.
We All Still Love Visiting Parks
While we struggle to find ways to support our parks, park attendance continues to increase on the national and local level. Minute Man National Historic Park exceeded 1 million visitors last year, Carlsbad Caverns had it’s highest attendance in 15 years, and the same uptick can be seen in countless other parks. That leaves many parks across the nation with an unusual dilemma. We have an increasing demand for our nation’s parks and yet fewer resources to support them.
Increased Admission Rates Across Various States
The most intuitive way for these parks to cover their costs is to increase rates and we’ve seen a number of different parks doing just that this year. From Wisconsin to Louisiana, states have decided to increase camping rates within their state parks. In most cases the increase is minimal, but it should have a substantial impact on the park’s operating budget.
Creative New Fees in Hawaii
Other states such as Hawaii are trying to get around an entrance fee rate hike with smaller fees for additional park activities. Countless people visit Haleakala National Park in Maui every year to watch the sunrise causing traffic jams and accidents. Park officers saw a new reservation system as an opportunity to reduce congestion and boost the park’s operating budget. The reservation fee of $1.50 has been introduced to park goers who want to get premium parking for the breathtaking views of the sunrise in the park.
Should Private Industry Fill the Gaps?
One of the most common suggestions is to let private industries have an opportunity to balance the budget for our parks. We’re seeing more state and local parks testing the waters with just that. For instance, Castle Rock in Colorado has decided to bridge public funding with private investment to build an extensive zipline course in the park.
Not All Private Partnerships Are Carrying Their Weight
A number of private companies offering concessions operate within our National Parks. This is seen as a mutually beneficial arrangement that allows the NPS to focus on the park while private companies can offer guests a more comfortable experience using their merchandizing expertise. In exchange for being able to serve park visitors without competition, these private companies are supposed to be responsible for the maintenance of their facilities. Yet, nearly $400 million of the repairs in the NPS backlog have been submitted to cover costs that should be incurred by these private companies.
The futures of our parks are not solely at the mercy of lawmakers and taxpayer funds. Volunteers continue to play an important part in keeping parks open. For those without the time or money to donate to their parks, you can make a difference by writing to your representatives and voicing your opinion.