In this episode, host Kristin Hayes talks with RFF Senior Fellow Margaret Walls about her work on the economics of national parks and other public lands, including ways to address ongoing funding needs and overcrowding. They also discuss some of the recent concerns related to national parks and the government shutdown.
- “This idea that's in Congress right now to use the energy revenues [to fund the National Parks] is not a long-term solution. So their notion is to take this money, create a fund for four years to clear the backlog. That's fine, but the backlog exists because annual appropriations are not sufficient to operate the parks.” (9:13)
- “My own view about fees—entrance fees—is that we need to be creative and think about some differential fees. A lot of the parks are overcrowded in the peak season. They probably need higher fees during that season. Parks are crowded on the weekends. Perhaps we need daily differential pricing.” (11:31)
- “So, the notion that some of that money from that growing [outdoor recreation] economy goes back to support our public lands might not be a bad idea.” (14:50)
Top of the Stack
- The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams
- All The Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West by David Gessner
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Margaret, thank you so much for joining me. It's really great to have some in-house expertise on this topic, and I'm very glad we were able to schedule some time with you. So, we like to open the podcast with a get-to-know you question or two—can you tell us a little bit about how you got interested in working on the economics of national parks? Since I know that you personally have visited many national parks, let me ask, which is your favorite park and why?
Margaret Walls: Thanks Kristin. Well, I got started on this work, I think in about 2008, 2009 and, thinking back on this, when we had a group called The Outdoor Resources Review Group, which was a bipartisan commission that had two honorary co-chairs from the senate. Lamar Alexander and Jeff Bingamman, who's no longer a senator. It was a commission that was put together to sort of look at issues in outdoor recreation and public lands conservation, and had some really notable, wonderful people on the commission. RFF did the companion research study.
So this was about a year and a half effort—all of these documents that are still really great reports that are on our website. But that is where I first started working on it from a research perspective. We helped that commission out in looking at a lot of funding issues, recreation demand, and a whole host of other things. So that's where it started, and national parks was part of that. It wasn't the only thing. There was many other issues as well. My favorite national park is probably Zion, in Utah.
Kristin Hayes: Good choice.
Margaret Walls: Yeah, good choice. That's a popular park with a lot of people. In fact, that's one of the ones that's having a lot of the overcrowding issues, which is something you read a lot about. The parks are, people like to say, "Loved to death," a lot of them, and Zion is a very popular park. It's a beautiful park, as are most of the ones in Utah, for sure.
Kristin Hayes: Well that's great. So let's start with some basic details about the parks system. Tell me a little bit about how the US National Park System is normally funded, and is that different from other designations, such as a national forest or national monuments?
Margaret Walls: No, not really. Funding comes mainly from discretionary appropriations from Congress, and that's the same for the other land management agencies. It's the same for the Forest Service, which is in the Department of Agriculture. It's the same for the other interior agencies—the National Park Service is in the Department of [the] Interior, as is the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Bureau of Land Management, and they all get appropriations from Congress.
So, in the most recent year [...] I want to make a distinction here because there's what's called discretionary appropriations. In the most recent year, the National Park Service got about 3.5 billion dollars in discretionary appropriations. About three quarters of that money goes for park operations, so the rest of it goes to some grant programs and different things. But actually operating and maintaining the parks is about 2.5 billion dollars in appropriations. So annual appropriations from Congress were about 3.5 billion dollars in the most recent year. It's important to note that that's less in inflation-adjusted terms than it was 10 years ago. So, the Park Service has gotten less money over the last decade in real dollars, and that's led to a growing deferred maintenance backlog in the system, and just revenues that don't meet cost.
There's a little bit of additional—what are called mandatory appropriations—and that was about $700 million, in the most recent year. And that money is money that comes from fees. So this is money that the parks are [...] and there's a reason why I'm bringing this up: the Park Service charges entrance fees at some parks. They charge fees if you're going to camp. They charge fees for lodging, a host of other things. There's a law that says that up to 80 percent of those fee revenues stay at the unit where they're collected, to be used for specific things. So that, in the most recent year, was an additional about 700 million dollars for the Park Service, on top of that $3.5 billion.
Kristin Hayes: Okay, so that means that if they're raised in Yellowstone, they stay in Yellowstone, and the same for other jurisdictions?
Margaret Walls: That's correct. Not every penny, but most of it.
Kristin Hayes: But, 80 percent or so?
Margaret Walls: Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Kristin Hayes: Very good to know. Okay, so what changes has the Trump administration recently proposed related to national parks? Either how they're funded, how they're used, how those revenue streams might be augmented or changed over time?
Margaret Walls: Right. Well, the biggest thing and the most controversial was in the fall of 2017 when they proposed raising the entrance fees at about 17 parks. Now, not all of the parks do charge entrance fees, but of the ones that do, they proposed to raise fees from about $30 to about $70, so that's—
Kristin Hayes: Is that per car or person?
Margaret Walls: That's per car.
Kristin Hayes: Okay.
Margaret Walls: That's per car, and that's [...] usually at most parks, you can stay for a week for that fee. So that was very controversial and most people did not like that idea, so there was a lot of pushback. They took comments and there was pushback. So in the end what they ended up doing was, they did raise fees but only by about $5, and they raised them across the board. So what they had proposed was, let's do this big increase at these 17 parks, only in the peak season when there are most of the visitors. Instead, what they ended up with was this $5 increase across the board, at all the parks that charge.
They've also been considering a few other things. The main thing that's on the table at the moment to raise money for the parks is a bill in Congress that I believe has made its way out of the House Natural Resources Committee, but I'm not completely sure about that. This is supported by the Trump administration. They also proposed something like this, and that's to take energy revenues from public lands and dedicate 50 percent of that money that's not already dedicated to something else and put it to a fund that will be used for the parks to clear what's called their “deferred maintenance backlog.” So this is another thing that gets written about a lot, and this is the money that the Park Service feels it needs in order to repair all the problems that it has, and that's 11.6 billion dollars at the moment, that backlog.
Kristin Hayes: Wow.
Margaret Walls: So, this is a proposal that's on the table that seems to have some support, and that would go on for about a four-year period (I think, according to the bill that's in Congress right now). I think the administration supports that idea. But that [...] those are the two things that I know about—increasing fee revenues and, perhaps, using the energy revenues.
Kristin Hayes: That's very interesting, and we're starting to reference some current events. As I imagine our listeners know, the national parks have been open during this particular government shutdown, unlike in some of the past government shutdowns. But, they of course have been working with a skeleton staff and on a limited budget during the shutdown, which of course puts strains on capacity to meet visitor needs. So, can you say a little bit more about why the idea of dipping into entrance fees for that sort of ongoing visitor interaction would be controversial?
Margaret Walls: I'm not sure why it's controversial, but my understanding is [...] Now that's the $700 million that I mentioned from the fee revenues that stay at the parks. The law that established that use of those fees, which is called the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, says that the revenues have to be used to enhance visitor services and facilities. People are saying that it might not be legal to take those monies (that money that's been raised from the fees) and use it to basically operate the parks during the shutdown.
I'm not a lawyer. I don't know if that's legal or not, but as I understand it, that's the criticism and the controversy—is that that's not the appropriate use of those revenues. I think it is an interpretation of what you think an enhancement of visitor services is and, I don't know, but that's the problem that they see. And the last time there was a shutdown, my understanding is they considered doing this and then backed off from it.
Kristin Hayes: That's very interesting. That's helpful context. Thanks, because it does seem that using visitor fees to actually allow visitors to continue to be engaged with the park would, in fact, be an enhancement—but I guess exactly as you noted it, it very much depends on the definitions included in the legislation.
So, you've done a lot of creative thinking about ways to fund parks. We've obviously talked about how they're funded now, some of the opportunities that are being explored by the administration but, since that initial work back in 2008, what have you been thinking about in terms of creative ways to perhaps enhance the revenue available to our National Park System?
Margaret Walls: I think there's a lot of things to think about here. One thing I want to say first, is that this idea that's in Congress right now to use the energy revenues—it’s not a long-term solution. So their notion is to take this money, create a fund for four years to clear the backlog. That's fine, but the backlog exists because annual appropriations are not sufficient to operate the parks. With how much it costs to operate the park and maintain the park, to have the employees that work at the park, to maintain the trails, to maintain all that infrastructure—they're not raising enough money to do that and so this backlog develops because of that, because things just get deferred. You don't have the money, you don't do it.
If we don't solve that ongoing annual revenue problem, and it could be an annual cost problem, too. Perhaps we're spending too much money. Perhaps the Park Service is inefficient in how it operates the parks, and there could be some of that. I'm sure there's some of that, but I don't think anybody disagrees that there's not enough revenue.
So, we have to think about how we're going to have ongoing, annual revenue sufficient to operate what we consider to be probably the premier national park system in the world. It's a really difficult question. So I think there's a couple of things that I've thought about. The first and obvious one is back to the fees. Do we want people to pay more money to get in the parks? This is pretty unpopular, and it's unpopular in the National Park Service because access to these parks for everybody is what we want.
Kristin Hayes: Are some of the concerns there about regressivity—and that just by raising the fees, you make them that much less accessible to low-income households?
Margaret Walls: That's absolutely what it is, and I think there's a big concern that, if you have a $100 fee to get in the park, who are you going to get to come? A counter argument there is that it costs a lot to get to most of these parks, so the big bulk of the money that you pay if you visit a park is probably getting there, taking vacation, driving, flying, staying in a hotel. Not really the entrance fee to the park itself.
Nonetheless, I'm very sympathetic to the notion of not putting the fees too high. My own view about fees, entrance fees, is that we need to be creative and think about some differential fees. A lot of the parks are overcrowded in the peak season. They probably need higher fees during that season. Parks are crowded on the weekends. Perhaps we need daily differential pricing.
Kristin Hayes: Like going to the movies, right? Where you pay a little bit more when you go at primetime?
Margaret Walls: Yes. Just like the movies and a lot of other things. Exactly, yeah. The other thing about fees is, we can differentiate in other ways. We have a lot of international visitors to our parks. They pay the same amount as American citizens. This is not the case in many other countries. An international visitor to parks in Kenya and Tanzania and India, they all pay more than the citizens of those countries. It's something we don't do here, but it's a thought.
There are other creative ways to think about fees, and I think what's really needed is a better understanding of use and demand, and how changes to the fees might help. Some experiments to try and see how things work, I think is in order.
The other idea for raising money for the parks comes under the heading of: should we have some kind of dedicated tax or fee program that raises money on an annual basis. So right now, it's just general appropriations from Congress. Should there be some dedicated fund? I will point out that for decades we've had fishing and hunting licenses, and a federal tax on firearms and ammunition, all of which that money goes to fund wildlife conservation, in a very unique and very productive partnership with states. So, there is a precedent here for this kind of thing. The problem is that that money from the licensing side is declining because the number of hunters and fishermen is declining.
In its place, perhaps, it seems to be,are more general recreationists—people sightseeing, people hiking, lots of other kinds of recreation—none of which pays a fee or has a license. So, this has been on the table before: it was called the “backpack tax” at one point. Some people refer to it as the "gear tax," but the notion here is, we collect some money on some sort of gear that's used in the outdoors, and we take that money and put it to public lands, perhaps for the national parks.
Kristin Hayes: And I imagine those other uses of the National Park System and other public lands are in fact increasing, even if the hunting and fishing licenses might be decreasing. Is that right?
Margaret Walls: I think that's right. Yeah, most of the evidence suggests that. In fact, there's this new term called the “outdoor recreation economy,” which by most accounts is growing. There are about, I think, 11 states now that have created a new office—an outdoor recreation state office—to sort of promote outdoor recreation in their states, and most of that's centered on their public lands, like their national parks. So, the notion that some of that money from that growing economy goes back to support our public lands might not be a bad idea.
Now I will say that the recreation industry is very opposed to any idea of a gear tax, but we need to discuss this more, I think. Something like this needs to be on the table. I want to make one point though, about these sort of dedicated taxes like this. Anytime that we have had any sort of dedicated or earmarked tax, for anything, be it outdoor recreation or anything else, general revenues will fall. They always fall, so we need to be prepared for that. If we are creative enough and can get over the political hump to create some new source of revenue, beware—Congress will probably cut back.
Kristin Hayes: Mmhmm [affirmative]. They'll appropriate it.
Margaret Walls: Generally, it's just the way it works. The states have been interesting laboratories here. So, states all have their own park system. They do conservation. They have a wide array of funding things that they do. We can learn from them, so I think there's some good ideas that have been implemented in the states.
Kristin Hayes: That's really interesting and I'm sure very much of interest to policymakers in those states as well. So, that's something I would encourage our listeners to keep an eye out for on RFF's website in the next few months. And that reminds me, you're actually working on a study, if I'm not mistaken, about how outdoor recreation contributes to local economies. Is that right? Can you say a little bit more about that?
Margaret Walls: Yeah, that's right. This isn't national park focused, at least not yet. We may look at national parks, but there's been an interest in whether protecting lands—as a park or as a national monument or other protective status—actually adds to local economies, helps them grow, or hurts them by cutting off some other opportunities. So, we're looking in particular at how jobs and the number of establishments might be growing or shrinking, in areas near national monuments after they get designated.
So our study is focused on the eight states in the Mountain West, and it is focused right now on national monuments that have been created between 1990 and 2015. Using some very unique data and some pretty sophisticated statistical methods, we're trying to tease out whether or not when a monument is designated in an area, it actually adds to the number of jobs that exist in that area. We're fairly far along. We should have some results this spring from that study, but I think it's getting at this question about—what is really happening to local communities and their economies in particular, when we protect public lands?
We have a lot of public lands, especially in the West. Not all of them are protected for recreation and conservation purposes. Some of them are open to drilling, forestry, and those kinds of activities. When we protect them, we pretty much shut that activity down. If it was there at the time of designation it can continue, but no new leasing happens. So, we're trying to see what are the net economic effects from that.
Kristin Hayes: Well, that's great. This is really, really interesting and timely stuff. I really appreciate you taking the time to tell us a little bit more about it. So, I want to just close the podcast with our regular ending feature, which we call "Top of the Stack."
We ask our guest to recommend something that they've read or watched or listened to, like a podcast, that they might particularly recommend to our listeners who are interested in energy and environment issues. In this case, if you do have another national park or site that you want to recommend, of course, that would be very welcome as well. What's on the top of the stack for you, Margaret?
Margaret Walls: Well, I'm an avid reader of books on the history of our public lands, on nature writing, of all that kind of thing. So, looking back on the last couple of years, I do have a couple of really good recommendations. For anybody who's a lover of national parks, please read The Hour of Land, by Terry Tempest Williams. I don't know if you know Terry Tempest Williams.
Kristin Hayes: I do not.
Margaret Walls: She's a Utah Mormon woman who writes amazing books about nature, and she has a really terrific book about her experiences in the national parks. I love this book. I actually listen to it on tape, so there's your podcast recommendation, in a way.
Kristin Hayes: You can read and listen, yeah.
Margaret Walls: Yeah, the full title is The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks. I loved that book. And a second one I highly recommend is called All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West. That's a book by David Gessner that talks about [...] Well, first people need to read Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, if you haven't done that. Then he walks through sort of the creation of wilderness and the tensions between these two men who were highly influential.
Then last thing I would say is, don't just visit the national parks. I want to remind people about national monuments, which have also been under the gun in the last couple of years. One of my very favorite places is Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, which is another beautiful public land that we all own and should go visit.
Kristin Hayes: That's great, Margaret. Thank you for those recommendations and for joining us, and we'll talk to you again soon.
Margaret Walls: Thank you.
The views expressed in RFF blog posts are those of the authors and should not be attributed to Resources for the Future.