Thursday, February 4, 2010

Obama's national parks funding campaign promise

Did Barack Obama renege on a campaign promise?

Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), thinks so.

Here's the statement from a press release published earlier in the week:

(the) NPCA is calling on President Obama to keep his campaign promise to continue the federal commitment toward restoring our national parks in time for the 2016 centennial and beyond. Further, compared to the overall federal budget, the Park Service is very small—only one tenth of 1 percent. “Providing parks the funds needed to serve visitors and protect resources is a tiny investment in our national heritage, and will provide economic benefits and jobs in struggling communities nationwide,” said Kiernan.

The release also stated:

... the Administration’s budget request for the national parks will barely cover costs to pay the bills, let alone restore the operational needs to serve park visitors and protect America’s wildlife and heritage for their second century.

The President’s 2011 budget request for the National Park Service is approximately $2.7 billion—a decrease of $21.6 million (8%) over the current fiscal year 2010 budget. Within the total budget, nearly $100 million in park programs are reduced or eliminated—including Save America’s Treasures and Preserve America grants—and parks are left without funding to pay for cost of living adjustments for staff. The operations budget proposal does not come close to meeting the $100 million request by the National Park Second Century Commission, and is insufficient to maintain current park operations and visitor services. The budget also includes a $44 million decrease for construction and maintenance needs. Budget reductions mean that the proposed $35 million increase for park operations fails to fund basic Park Service needs.

In an interview conducted by the NPCA in 2008, Obama stated:

"I am committed to addressing the funding shortfall that the National Parks Service has experienced, and ensuring that by 2016, the National Parks Service centennial, the national park system has the resources it needs to meet its unmet maintenance and operational needs."

Every dollar invested in parks generates 4 dollars?

The same press release also mentions a study commissioned by the NPCA that found that every dollar invested in national parks generates at least four dollars of economic value to the public, based on a cost-benefit analysis.

Digging into the study (An Economic Asset at Risk) a little closer, I determined that this conclusion is misleading. What the study defines as "economic value" is really perceived value. In other words, the authors of the study have assigned a dollar value to hiking a trail, or bird watching, or sight-seeing within the parks. There is no real money involved in this calculation.

The problem with this, as I see it, is that the study implies that every dollar invested going forward will produce four real dollars to the public, thus implying additional investments in parks to be a no brainer. If this were true most Americans would be all for this and the politicians would be following suit.

In my view, one threat to our national parks that isn't being considered is the national debt bomb that's going to explode sooner or later. If we don't reign in our elected officials and get our finances in order soon, our parks, as we currently know them, could be in jeopardy.

Not only is outrageous deficit spending burying our country in debt on the national level, but most of our states are experiencing severe financial problems as well.

It's not too hard to imagine that someday federal and state governments could be forced into making radical changes to our parks. Is it possible that "unproductive" parks could be sold to private organizations in order to help pay down the debt? Maybe the National Park Service or state parks could end up selling or leasing park lands for the building of lodges, condos or golf courses. What about corporate sponsorship of parks: "The Cades Cove Loop brought to you by McDonald's"!

Don't think this could happen? Last year the city of Louisville, Kentucky closed Otter Creek Park due to budget cuts. This was a major city park that had cabins, a conference center, hiking, mountain biking, climbing, fishing, etc. The orginal plan was to close the park permanently, however, after a massive public outcry, the city put out a request for propsal to see what other options were available. At this time the city is in discussions with the YMCA of Greater Louisville about it taking over operations of the park.

If the national debt wasn't such a huge problem, deficit spending on parks probably wouldn't be an issue for most people. Given the circumstances, the National Park Service needs to find new ways to increase revenues. It's time for our leaders to begin thinking outside of the box. Could new attractions, services or amenities be added that would increase visitation? Could the national parks do fund raisers? How about asking for donations in addition to entrance fees at the time visitors arrive at a park? What about selling merchandise and collectibles more aggressively - similar to that of a real business?

Jeff Detailed information on trails in the Smoky Mountains; includes trail descriptions, key features, pictures, video, maps, elevation profiles, news, and more.


ASBP said...

Obama renege's on a campaign promise - wow, that's a shocker!

"If we don't reign in our elected officials": perhaps the understatement of the year...

They all need to go!

Bill W.

Perry said...


Thanks so much for writing about this important issue and for reading our report with an analytical eye! I kindly wanted to point out a couple facts to further inform your readers: National parks support $13.3 billion of local private-sector economic activity and 267,000 private-sector jobs. In 2008, national parks in Tennessee alone supported 10,584 jobs and saw more than 7.4 million visits. Non-local visitor spending topped $503.8 million.

Cost-benefit analysis is a standard approach used by the Federal Government, institutionalized by an executive order under President Reagan in 1981, to assess whether a government regulation or expenditure generates value for U.S. citizens. According to public finance theory, government should raise the funds necessary to invest in projects that generate value in excess of their cost. The value estimates in the report are conservative because of limitations in valuation methods and data. Considering the entire suite of economic benefits generated by parks, the Park System generates value likely many times greater than the numbers shown here.

Thanks again for writing. I encourage your readers to check out some of the other data supporting national parks as a positive investment:

Perry Wheeler
National Parks Conservation Association

Smoky Mountain Hiker said...


Thanks for taking the time to add your perspective on this.

No doubt national parks have had a huge impact on local economies across the country. In my view though, spending additional tax payer dollars will eventually (if it hasn't already) run into the law of diminishing returns.

Other than fixing infrastructure problems, the only way to justify additional spending is if a given project increases the number of visitors or increases the amount visitors spend.

My whole point is that our politicians (both parties) are spending our money recklessly, and we have to draw a line somewhere that says enough is enough.

Please don't misunderstand this as being anti-parks. My overall point is that there has to be a better way. Park managers need to look at alternative ways to raise funds, even treating the park system as a business.

Thanks again for your comments.