By Derrick Crandall
President, American Recreation Coalition
It is time to tell Washington that games need to stop. Americans overwhelmingly agree that federal deficits need to be cut, and that federal spending reductions need to be a big part of this effort.
But, few Americans support across-the-board cuts that treat all federal programs the same. And few Americans believe that a 5% cut in spending needs to result in closed national parks, three-hour security screenings at airports and aircraft carriers being left tied up at our docks.
Americans feel that sequestration is a poor way to prompt the kind of decisions needed to insure that federal spending is under control. They are right. Most Americans have gone through 5 percent cuts in their own households, at their own churches and where they work. And they know that most of these cuts haven’t had devastating impacts – in fact, in many cases they have helped refocus our energy and funds to achieve improvements.
We need to both challenge and empower the agencies caring for America’s national parks and other special places to develop sustainable plans to supplement traditional appropriations of general tax revenues. It would be easy, and perhaps even politically possible, to call for exemption of spending on national parks and for other important federal recreation programs from sequestration and budget cutting, but it would also be wrong.
There are ways to sustain a strong system of national parks not only for the next few years but long into the future – and that is what we should be doing as the National Park Service turns 100 in 2016 and embarks on efforts to stay relevant and cherished for another 100 years.
Here are 10 steps to consider – and while most focus on national parks specifically, the ideas are largely applicable to all federal land-managing agencies.
First, services provided by NPS and other federal agencies are valued by visitors who willingly pay for entrance, use of campsites, interpretive programs and more. In fact, these services are currently underpriced. In major parks, a carload of visitors may enter a park, or several parks in the same geographic area, for a seven day period at a cost of $10, $15 – but never more than $25. Modest changes including changing fees to a daily fee, or to charging for each adult visitor, would increase NPS funding substantially. In addition, there are many parks which charge no fee, and many fee sites do not collect fees 24 hours a day. In both cases, one of the key arguments is the cost of collection. Automated and remote collection could also greatly increase the efficiency of fee collection. Likely simple additional net revenues to the NPS from this action: $75 million annually.
Second, there are roles and functions that could and should be reviewed and could be transferable to private sector operations. For example, NPS directly operates most of its campgrounds while a sister federal agency, the Forest Service, relies largely on concessioners. NPS campgrounds are now underutilized, full only during peak seasons and some weekends. Concessioner operation would add camper services, introduce dynamic pricing and start marketing these campgrounds. NPS costs would drop by millions of dollars, its receipts from franchise fees would rise … and campers would have increased satisfaction levels. Estimated net financial gain from this change is at least $25 million.
Third, there are easy management actions to reduce spending. More than 20 large concessions contracts are now on 10 year cycles. Each costs NPS millions of dollars to produce a prospectus, perform an evaluation of offers and develop a new contract. In many instances, current concessioners are operating at a level which any independent evaluator would label as superior. Extending the contract cycle from 10 to 15 years is allowed by law and this would achieve an immediate savings of at least $5 million annually.
Fourth, limitations on current concessions operations prevent millions of visits and more than a hundred million dollars in spending each year. The last boat accessing the Statue of Liberty departs Manhattan at 3:30 pm during peak season – a National Park Service curfew. Nighttime tours of Alcatraz are very limited – robbing many of both the experience on the island and the breathtaking view of San Francisco. Lodges at many national parks open and close at NPS-defined dates, even when there is great demand for rooms before and after. At an average franchise fee of 15% at the key sites, an increase in revenues of $100 million would generate $15 million each year in additional franchise fees to the National Park Service.
Fifth, the US Congress recently directed the Forest Service to expand summer recreation opportunities at ski areas on national forests – many don’t realize that 60% of US skiing occurs on national forests at privately-developed areas like Vail and Mammoth and Snowbird and more. This is going to add the equivalent of more than a thousand jobs within two years. Allowing park concessioners to add agreed-upon services easily – from bike rentals to camera safaris to tent and yurt rentals – could boost visitor spending by $20 million annually quickly – another $3 million in fees to the NPS.
Sixth, we need to invite international visitors – but also not subsidize them. US taxpayers now provide well over 90% of the budget of our parks. International visitors should not be eligible for purchases of America the Beautiful passes, where they have unlimited access to all parks for just $80. That should be reserved for Americans. And we should be charging international visitors a per-person entry fee, rather than a per-car fee. The nation has set a goal of increasing international visitors to the US from current level of about 60 million annually to 100 million – and we know from surveys that about 20% of all international visitors will visit a national park. If each visits at least three, and per person entry fees are $10, then just the additional visitors would generate $240 million in additional fees annually! And imagine if NPS were encouraged to use a portion of this income to aid Brand USA in its promotion overseas!
Seventh, the percentage of NPS employees in the field has shrunk. Unlike in most private sector organizations, we have NOT seen a flattening in the NPS management structure. Stimulus spending from 2008 to 2011 largely protected federal agencies from cutbacks. NPS still has a national headquarters staff, regional staffs and park management staffs. Even where regions have been combined, “losing” cities like Seattle and Boston continue to have NPS offices with several hundred employees. While staff reductions should not be proscriptive and mandated, it is reasonable to expect that reductions caused by sequestration and generally tighter budgets should be prioritized to avoid impacts on visitor services and other field functions.
Eighth, federal agencies including the National Park Service need to be open to partnerships with recreation, travel and tourism interests. Visitors aboard cruise ships in Alaska and on certain AMTRAK trains are offered interpretive programs presented by NPS staff and NPS-trained volunteers – paid for by the tourism industry. There are great opportunities for shared-cost interpretive programs and other services. The travel and tourism industry is involved in lodging, rental car and other taxes that generate billions of dollars, paying for promotion of areas and even paying for professional stadiums and convention centers. Gateways dependent on national parks and other federal attractions can be expected to support programs which deliver better guest experiences – a modest and sustainable goal would be to secure $10 million annually in in-kind and cash support for visitor services for use to aid federal lands visitors.
Ninth, the National Park Service and other federal agencies have authorized steps to encourage visitors to make voluntary donations. The program for national parks, called the Guest Donation Program, currently involves fewer that 20 parks and generates about $1 million annually. The National Park Hospitality Association has proposed changes that would boost the annual level of giving to $10 million annually, and would supply the National Park Foundation and local park friends organizations with leads on park visitors making contributions designed to encourage greater giving to local parks and the National Park Service Centennial Program.
And 10th and finally, it is time to put the National Park Service and all federal land agencies back in the outreach and promotion business. The US Travel Bureau was once an office in the National Park Service, and the first National Park Service Director saw marketing as a primary goal, to gain public support for national parks. Visitation to national parks today is below the levels of the late 1980s, despite a population increase of more than 30 percent. The number of campsites, lodge rooms and restaurant chairs has declined. It is time to promote our parks and build capacity in our parks – not with taxpayer funding but with private investments, just as the lodges we now cherish were built largely by railroads and supporters like the Rockefeller family. Were we to raise visitation to the same proportion of the nation which visited parks in the 1980’s, visitation would be approaching 375 million visits – and the combination of increased entrance fees, camping fees and fees paid by concessioners would likely rise by 30%, as well – or nearly $100 million annually and sustainably.
Adding up the results of these ten steps generates a new income stream that dwarfs the projected $115 million sequestration cut – nearly half a billion dollars in increased revenues. Time to take some actions!