On Friday of last week, the National Parks Conservation Association issued a press release critical of the recent Senate Interior Appropriations Bill. In their press release, the NPCA states:
“The proposed funding for park operations however falls short of protecting park resources and serving visitors. Although the Senate has proposed a more robust allocation than the House, the NPS operating account is cut more than twice as much. We appreciate efforts by both the House and Senate subcommittees to protect park operating accounts, however reducing operations funding $20 million below last year’s level should be reconsidered. Maintaining this account is critical to meeting fixed operating costs so that seasonal and other ranger levels can be maintained. We strongly encourage the House and Senate to work together to come as close as possible to meeting fixed costs. In addition, our national parks cannot sustain continual reductions to the construction budget, as contemplated here by a 40 percent cut in line-item projects, when NPS already estimates they receive $325 million less every year than needed to keep the maintenance backlog from growing."
Unfortunately, this is the new reality. Given the dire straights of our public finances, I really don't see national parks being fully funded for a very long time, if ever. Given all of the other priorities, in addition to the mounting debt problem, national parks will be one of the first departments to be squeezed. Take a look at what's happening to state parks around the nation for evidence of this.
There are ways to solve this problem though. I think national parks should be given more leeway for generating revenue. It's a matter of thinking outside the box. As just one example: why not allow parks to offer special private tours for high paying donors? Several years ago I saw a PBS program in which James Taylor (folk singer from the 70s for the younger readers... :) ....) did a multi-day rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. At the end of each day of rafting, JT would sing and play a couple of songs next to the camp fire. Imagine the Park Service holding similar tours, with a celebrity, or a famous biologist, etc., and charging a fee to high paying donors.
Why not have the Great Smoky Mountains build a museum so that the public can see all of the artifacts that are currently collecting dust in a warehouse? I would have to think this would be something a large number of people would be willing to spend money to see.
There are other proven ways of raising money. Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Association are two great examples. The Blue Ridge Parkway recently announced that they have disbursed more money this year than at any time in their history. This was driven in large part by the more than 27,000 Blue Ridge Parkway specialty license plates that are now on the road. The BRP Foundation receives $20 for every plate sold.
The reality of the situation is that no matter how much we raise taxes, there will never be enough to fully fund our parks. Our exploding debt will eat every non-entitlement dollar collected. National parks must come to grips with this, and begin looking for ways to raise funds, or the result will be closed parks, reduced hours, or reduced services, just as many state parks have already endured.