Report: No One Source for Park Funding
Editor's Note: The following opinion piece comes from the National Association of State Outdoor Recreation Liaison Officers (NASORLO). NASORLO represents the states and territories and provide a liaison to Congress and the Department of Interior for the administration of matching funds to state and local governments for outdoor recreation.
Despite recent economic hardship, state parks do have a broad menu of strategies to raise money, says a new report.
But the report, Paying for State Parks, says there is no single magical source of money to make up for dwindling state revenues and dwindling assistance from the state side of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
Concludes author Margaret Walls, research director for the Resources for the Future think tank, “Yet with all the options available, it is important to understand that no one-size-fits-all approach will work for state park systems given the diversity in their lands and facilities and the differences in size and scope. Moreover, the problems facing many states vary in degree of severity, with some states facing a genuine crisis and others on better footing.”
Besides, said Walls, each one set of four categories of revenues – user fees, privatization, dedicated public funds and private contributions – has its plusses and minuses.
For instance Walls said of user fees, which are standard practice in most state park systems, “Although user fees will always play a role in state park financing and are appropriate for many of the services parks provide, charging a price rations use and can be inefficient. If there is no congestion and use of the park is ‘nonrival’ — that is, one person’s use does not take away the amount left for others to enjoy — then charging an entrance fee inefficiently limits use of the park.”
State and local park agencies have long relied in part on federal revenues from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Congress established it in 1965 with revenues from oil and gas royalties for use in acquiring conservation lands. Although the law authorizes an appropriation of up to $900 million per year (half federal, half state), it does not guarantee the $900 million. So appropriators have the discretion to spend far less than that. And they do.
To reinvigorate the fund Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and 20 cosponsors introduced legislation (S 338) Feb. 14 that would make the Land and Water Conservation Fund permanent and guarantee the $900 million each year.
For the first half of fiscal 2013 Congress last fall approved an appropriation that is based on a fiscal 2012 full-year allocation of $45 million, well below the $450 million authorized by law. The House Appropriations Committee last year recommended $2.8 million for the entire fiscal 2013 and the Senate subcommittee on Interior Appropriations recommended $45.6 million.
But money isn’t the only thing, said Walls. Management also counts. “Some systems have not kept up with changing demographics and preferences. Governance and management structures in many systems seem to stifle creativity and innovation,” her report says. “Finding sustainable funding for parks is only one part of the problem and should be considered in conjunction with the larger question of what a state park system should look like, what programs and services it should provide, and how it should be managed.”
Walls offered the positive example of the state of Michigan for “giving agencies the latitude and flexibility to make more of their own decisions and manage their own money can help.”
She said, “The state park director has provided incentives to employees to develop new approaches in parks, created a variety of new initiatives and programs, and worked carefully to create a dedicated funding stream through a new annual park pass program.”
As for the lagging federal assistance to LWCF, we have reported in the last two issues of FPR on two separate initiatives to revive and extend the existing program as it approaches its 50th birthday in 2015.
In one the National Association of State outdoor Recreation Liaison Officers has scheduled a summit for April 7-11 in Denver on the future of LWCF. In the other the Society of Outdoor Recreation Professionals separately has scheduled a roundtable to collect ideas on strengthening the often-constrained law as part of its annual meeting in Traverse City, Mich., in May.
Walls has long been active in park and recreation policy. In 2008 and 2009 she served as study director for the Outdoor Resources Review Group, which submitted recommendations to Congress on strengthening LWCF and related programs.
The 18-member Outdoor Resources Review Group was led by Henry Diamond, a partner with the law firm Beveridge & Diamond, and Patrick Noonan, chairman emeritus of The Conservation Fund. Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., served as honorary cochairs.
Walls’ new study called Paying for State Parks: Evaluating Alternative Approaches for the 21st Century, focuses strictly on methods for states to raise money for their parks. It is available at: http://www.rff.org/RFF/Documents/RFF-Rpt-Walls-FinancingStateParks.pdf.
The four main proposals in her paper:
- User fees: Good: A basic fund-raising strategy for most state park systems. Bad: Entrance fees can squeeze out visitors and limit use of a particular park.
- Privatization: Good: Contracts with private companies can produce more money than it costs to oversee and operate the contracts. Bad: Management of an entire park – as opposed to a single concession in a park – can create a complex and difficult relationship.
- Dedicated state revenues: Good: Brings in money. Broad-based taxes are best. Bad: States often reduce general fund allocations to offset the new revenues.
- Private contributions: Good: Raises money. For instance, the Central Park Conservancy in New York pays for 85% of the $48 million budget for Central Park. Bad: Can crowd out general fund revenues.