Editorial: Let’s Get Creative with Park Funding
Editor’s Note: The following editorial appeared in The Billings (Mont.) Gazette:
On a summer day, Yellowstone National Park attracts more than 30,000 visitors. They will drive the park’s 310 miles of paved roads, hike some of its 1,000 miles of trails, visit some of its 900 historic buildings, occupy 2,000 park hotel rooms and cabins and a dozen park campgrounds. Many dozens more hotels and campgrounds in Montana and Wyoming border towns will have “no vacancy” signs during Yellowstone’s summer peak.
Yellowstone Park is the crown jewel of the region’s tourism industry, attracting 3.4 million visitors last year from across the nation and around the globe.
Yellowstone fans need to know that all is not well: their park is being starved.
Yellowstone’s permanent workforce of 300 was reduced by 10% for this season. Those 30 vacancies affect all facets of park services.
“It’s everything from maintenance foreman to law enforcement and interpretive rangers,” Superintendent Dan Wenk told The Billings Gazette in a recent interview at the park’s Mammoth, Wyo., headquarters. Visitors will probably see fewer rangers out in the park and fewer seasonal researchers, Wenk said. The park firefighting staff has been reduced. One of two deputy superintendent positions has been eliminated permanently, but Wenk said other vacant positions will have to be filled.
Yellowstone and other national parks have been underfunded for decades. Yellowstone’s deferred maintenance backlog includes work on deteriorated and substandard roads and wastewater treatment facilities.
The park’s tight budget became much tighter this year with the effects of the federal “sequester” that imposed across-the-board spending cuts.
“We’re going to have to make difficult choices,” Wenk said. The priorities will be “protect this park” and “provide the highest-quality visitor experience we can.”
That same dilemma was echoed last week in a hearing held by the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in the Capitol. Several senators, leaders of park advocacy groups and National Park Service (NPS) Director Jon Jarvis discussed ideas for adequate funding of America’s national parks.
At the end of fiscal 2012, the NPS had a deferred maintenance backlog of $11.5 billion, Jarvis told the committee. It needs $700 million annually just to keep that backlog from growing. Last year, NPS had $444 million for deferred maintenance.
Additionally, the parks are underfunded this year by $600 million on operations, according to Craig Obey of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).
“National park operations funding is down 13% in today’s dollars from where it was only three years ago, and the construction budget has declined by nearly 70% over the last decade in today’s dollars,” Obey told the Senate committee.
Clearly, national park funding must be improved. But the sequester cuts apparently are here to stay. However, there are creative, workable options that can supplement congressional appropriations:
- Raise user fees, starting with park entrance fees and keep that money in the park that collects it.
- Expand the use of public-private partnerships for park projects.
- Recruit more volunteers to help provide park services.
Although the NPS has some discretion to raise entrance fees, it is imperative that Congress acts to reauthorize the 2004 law that allows parks to keep entrance fees. Otherwise, the fee provision of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act will expire in December 2014. Presently, parks are permitted to retain 80% of the entrance fees they collect; the balance goes to a fund for all parks.
The three ideas enumerated above would be particularly beneficial to Yellowstone because it is so popular. However, eliminating the entire NPS maintenance backlog while meeting the operating needs of all park units will take a lot more money and changes that are politically difficult.
National Parks Conservation Association supports using 1 cent of any increase in the federal fuel tax to repair and improve roads in national parks and forests.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and some other GOP senators want to redirect the bulk of Land and Water Conservation Fund revenues (which come from offshore oil drilling) to repair park roads for 10 years to clear the backlog.
Bipartisan park support
Senators voiced strong bipartisan support for protecting and maintaining America’s national parks but indicated partisan differences on how to close the large gap between current funding and what our parks need.
We urge the Montana and Wyoming delegations to make action on park funding a high priority for the coming year. Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier and Little Bighorn National Battlefield are our American heritage.
The centennial of the National Park Service will be in 2016. Now is the time to focus on getting America’s parks up-to-date and ready for their next century.