Solve Park Controversies with User Fees

Recent reports about the controversy over Atlanta's Martin Luther King, Jr., Historic Site focused on the King family's proposals to run the site like a theme park. The National Park Service, meanwhile, was presented as something of an innocent bystander.

Yet a close look at Park Service history reveals that conflicts like this are surprisingly common. Someone convinces Congress to buy or protect an area as a unit of the Park System. But when the original sponsors realize that Park Service notions of how to manage the site differ from their own, they recoil in horror and vow to fight--usually unsuccessfully--what they see as a malignant government bureaucracy.

In the late 1970s the Eugene O'Neill Foundation wanted the Park Service to manage a house once owned by the famous playwright so that the Foundation could operate various artistic programs. The Park Service would pay for maintenance and the Foundation would stage plays and sponsor artists in residence.

But in 1990 the Park Service decided to run the site as a shrine to O'Neill's memory, greatly limiting Foundation activities. Only a lack of funding has prevented the Park Service from tearing down facilities that are key to the Foundation's programs.

A more serious dispute arose over the Kaloko-Honokohau Historical Park, created in 1978 to preserve native Hawaiian culture. Advocates say their original intention was something like Colonial Williamsburg: natives living on site, practicing traditional activities for tourists. But the Park Service decided to turn it into a static display with no traditional natives. In protest, residents occupied part of the park and physically prevented agency personnel from entering.

Such disputes are not new. As far back as 1920, Enos Mills, considered the father of Rocky Mountain Park, created a storm of negative publicity for the Park Service when the agency wouldn't let Mills run a stagecoach business carrying passengers into the park.

Ultimately, what all of these disputes have in common is money. The King dispute started because the Park Service was paying the King family $500,000 per year to let people visit the family-owned King Center without paying an entrance fee. When visitation zoomed from 175,000 to 2 million people per year, the family asked for more money. The Park Service refused.

At first glance, Park Service opponents, from Mills to the King family, seemed to be greedy people who did not have the parks' interests at heart. But put yourself in Mills' shoes: No one knows Rocky Mountain Park as well as you; shouldn't you be allowed to earn a little money giving people tours? Or in the King family's place: With 2 million people a year traipsing through your home, wouldn't you want more compensation?

The real problem is not greedy outsiders; it is the Park Service. Or, to be precise, it is Congress, which traditionally views parks as pork. Members of Congress create parks in their states and districts and give the Park Service huge budgets to build visitors facilities, but minimal funding for operations and maintenance.

Congress also limits the user fees parks may charge and won't let parks keep more than a small share of those fees. This gives parks little incentive to work with local people. Instead, the agency is mainly geared toward pleasing Congress with questionable mega-projects like America's Industrial Heritage, Steamtown, and the San Francisco Presidio.

Park advocates traditionally propose to solve this problem by giving the parks more money. But, like pouring gasoline on fire, that only makes the problem bigger.

A better solution is to completely divorce the parks from Congress by allowing parks to charge user fees at market rates and funding them out of the net income they earn. Modest fees paid by the 270 million annual park visitors should produce close to $1 billion per year.

Funding parks out of their net would discourage wasteful spending. A funding formula that granted parks, say, twice the net income they earned the previous year would allow parks to keep about two-thirds of their gross. This is more than adequate for park operations: Although the Park Service's annual budget is $1.5 billion, only $600 million goes for on-the-ground park operations.

Perhaps 20 percent of the gross could go into trust funds to protect natural and historic resources that might not be protected by user fees alone. The remaining funds could be divided between the U.S. Treasury and states in lieu of taxes. The Park Service bureaucracy would disappear.

Designed this way, user fees will save taxpayers $1.5 billion per year, eliminate the temptation to use parks as pork, and give park managers freedom to work without political interference. Although park users will pay more, even they should agree that this is a win-win situation for nearly everyone.

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