State and federal budget crunches are causing funding shortfalls in
public parks across the nation. Facilities are deteriorating, maintenance
backlogs are increasing, and budgets are shrinking as funds are shifted
to more \u201cvital\u201d services. To raise revenues for parks while improving
recreational services to visitors, governments should switch from general
tax appropriations to a user-fee funding system.
User fees are a more fair way of financing parks because they ensure that
only those that use the parks and all the facilities they have to offer must pay to maintain them. By
contrast, general tax appropriations tax everyone for benefits that may only be realized by a relatively small
portion of taxpayers. At the federal level, for example, Californians subsidize parks in Connecticut and
Virginians subsidize parks in Alaska.
The shift from general tax revenue to a voluntary fee system provides park visitors more choice over where
their hard-earned dollars are spent and what they get in return. Under a user fee system, people have the
freedom to enjoy the recreational services offered by the parks, seek alternative forms of recreation, or
simply decide to do without and find other uses for their money. This enables the park visitor to vote with
his feet and also communicates market demand to the park manager.
This brings us to another point: parks must be allowed to keep the user fees they collect so that these
revenues may be reinvested in the park where they were collected, rather than shipped off to state capitols
or Washington, D.C. where they may never be seen again. This allows park managers to more accurately
assess visitor demand\u2014to obtain better information on park visitors\u2019 wants and needs\u2014and adjust their
spending accordingly. It also provides managers with greater ability and incentives to respond to those
wants and needs.
To this end, Congress established the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program (Fee Demo) in 1996, which
authorized the National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife
Service to experiment with user fees and stipulated that at least 80 percent of fees collected must be
maintained by the park of origin. The pilot program has been extended several times, most recently in the
omnibus appropriations measure for FY 2005, which added the Bureau of Reclamation to the Fee Demo
program and continued the program for 10 more years.
A user fee system allows people more choice over where and how dollars are spent than tax appropriations
and lets them \u201cvote with their feet.\u201d This allows the \u201cmarket\u201d for recreation to determine necessary
services and projects, not arbitrary decisions by politicians and bureaucrats or politically driven pork-barrel
(or, in this case, \u201cpark-barrel\u201d) projects. A funding system driven by supply and park visitor demand,
rather than political aspirations, would not be likely to support unnecessary or otherwise wasteful projects.
Under the current system, cost savings is one of an agency\u2019s last considerations because any money appro-
priated to the agencies that goes unspent must be returned to the Treasury. Even worse, since unspent funds
imply that an agency is overfunded, bureaucracies have an incentive to exaggerate or overestimate their
costs in order to maintain an environment of fiscal crisis sufficient to justify ever-increasing budgets, and
pork-barreling abounds. As Richard J. Ansson, Jr., noted in a 1998 article in the Journal of Land Use &
A $333,000 \u201cstate-of-the-art,\u201d \u201cenvironmentally-friendly\u201d outhouse at the Delaware Gap National
Recreation Area in Pennsylvania (\u201cThe two-toilet outhouse has a gabled roof made of Vermont slate, a
cobblestone foundation built to withstand earthquakes, and porch railings made from quarried Indiana
Self-sufficient national parks could realize significant cost savings as the federal level of the bureaucracy
would diminish, allowing managers to devote more of their valuable time to actually managing parks, and
costly \u201cpark-barrel\u201d projects contrary to the interests of park users (and even conservationists) would not
be forced upon park administrators. The Fee Demonstration Program may be a vast improvement over
decades past, but until the national parks become completely self-sufficient, expenditure decisions and other
management policies will continue to be based on the preferences of Congress and special interests, not the
average park-going member of the public.
Some have voiced concerns that the cost of self-sufficient, user-fee-supported parks would prevent the poor
from enjoying the nation\u2019s natural resources. First of all, self-sufficient parks would be more efficient, and
thus cheaper to run, than those supported by general tax appropriations. Self-sufficient parks have inherent
service-maximization/cost-minimization incentives that tax-reliant parks do not, and the reduction in
bureaucracy necessary to administer funds would keep costs even lower. In addition, self-sufficient parks
would not be forced to embark upon legislators\u2019 pet projects (such as \u201cstate-of-the-art\u201d outhouses) that
currently swell the maintenance backlog and often take precedence over needed visitor services and facilities
improvements. Moreover, critics often ignore that it is the travel costs\u2014simply getting to and from state or
national parks\u2014that are cost prohibitive, not the user fees themselves.
All of this notwithstanding, the poor could be accommodated by offering \u201cfee-free\u201d days, free passes for
those who volunteer at park sites, or a certain number of free or reduced-price \u201cfirst-come, first-served\u201d
passes that would allow people to compete for the passes based on their time (i.e., queuing up in line) rather
than their disposable income.
Other critics have claimed that outsourcing or increased reliance on user fees will lead to the destruction of natural resources and the \u201cDisneyfication\u201d of the nation\u2019s parks. Yet, most people visit parks because they want to enjoy nature and get away from urban development for a time. Thus, self-sufficient parks have no incentive to overdevelop. In fact, they have the best incentives to balance preservation and recreation.
Moreover, a more market-oriented pricing system would actually help toprev ent the depletion of natural
resources by eliminating underpricing. Pricing park services below market prices (i.e., below those
determined by supply and demand) encourages overuse of facilities and resources. If everyone is allowed to
use the parks essentially without having to bear the cost of their use, then no one has an incentive to care
for or preserve the park\u2019s facilities and natural resources. This is known by economists as the \u201ctragedy-of-
Some parks, particularly very popular parks such as Yellowstone, will tend to be more commercialized and
cater to people who demand many services and accoutrements. Others will appeal to those seeking the
\u201crugged outdoors\u201d and will show no signs of commercialization.
Put simply, there is no single ideal, \u201cone-size-fits-all\u201d park mold, despite the efforts of a top-down
bureaucracy to make it so. Such variety offers park visitors many choices and people will be able to vote
their preferences with their feet\u2014and their dollars.
One very valid concern, given the current financing structure of the National Park System, is that the use of
both taxes and user fees constitutes double taxation. \u201cWhy should I have to pay user fees,\u201d one might
rightly argue, \u201cif I am already paying taxes to fund the parks?\u201d Why, indeed? As one senate staffer argued,
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