And in what feels like a one-two punch, the NPS has also announced a reservation system that will govern when folks can get into the park. The traffic congestion management plan aims to control the skyrocketing numbers of visitors to our area. While there are merits to these measures, I feel less and less like these parks are mine to enjoy. Perhaps I’m extra-sensitive after a long season of being shut out of Arches for evening and night road construction.
In terms of the fee hike, I would like the NPS to consider other methods and efficiencies before sticking it to the public. Government budget managers should try to operate like the private sector if they wish to be compared to real-world economics. Private businesses — the very ones the park service cited to bolster their rationale of what people might spend to get into other “family-oriented venues” — pay enormous property taxes, sales taxes, liability policies and payrolls, all without being subsidized. And in order to stay in business, they have to charge fair-market fees and take care of maintenance needs on a regular timeline in order to keep their businesses from crumbling. Deferred maintenance is a recipe for disaster in the private sector where there are no bailouts.
The leadership of our park system always likes to blame politics for their woes. And to a certain extent, politics is to blame. But when funding comes from sources that are not earned (i.e. taxes) I sometimes feel that they are spent without practical business empathy. Money magically appears in federal budgets without its spenders having to worry from whence it is generated.
Our nation’s parks operate at a chronic financial deficit, not entirely unlike how Swanny Park runs, which is a city venue, maintained by tax proceeds and with very little revenue from other sources. We don’t expect a city park to make money. At our national parks, even with federal subsidies, deferred maintenance currently exceeds $11 billion. The $70 fee hike proposed for 17 popular parks during their five busiest months — while steep — is expected to do very little to repair that backlog. The problem, some folks say, are the Trump administration cuts to staff and capital improvement budgets. But I don’t buy that entirely. It takes a while to develop a multi-billion-dollar deficit, and President Obama had eight years to weigh in on at least part of that. Folks will blame the Republican-controlled Congress, and the blame game just keeps rolling along.
I’d like to see an efficiency expert look at our parks and staffs and determine what is vital to the NPS mission, which is to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values” of park lands, “for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations.”
According to a group called the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, the NPS budget has decreased dramatically over the past few decades. As a percentage of the federal government it now only gets .07 percent instead of the .2 percent it received in the 1980s. But back then 70 percent of the budget was for staff, and now it’s about 90 percent. Perhaps staff needs to be trimmed so that more money can be spent on maintenance and capital projects.
There are a number of factions that will take a hit if the fee increase and reservation plan are approved. Low-income families will be even less likely to utilize these spaces, even if they jump through red tape and qualify for some sort of discount. Secondly, the stunning public lands that surround national parks, especially here in Utah where so much of our state would qualify for national park status in terms of unique beauty, will be even more inundated. The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, which operate on paltry budgets compared to their better-funded sibling the NPS, will be spread even thinner. Public lands that don’t have the same protections as parks, which are essentially outdoor museums, will get hammered even harder.
Even if approved, the hike may not fix the problems or make the NPS act in a more fiscally responsible manner. The increase is expected to cover just 1 percent of the maintenance deficit. But perhaps it succeeds in allowing fewer people in our parks. Public dialogue about this matter is essential. We are all entitled to enjoy the parks; they are our great American heritage. Such proposals hit us in our hearts as well as our pocketbooks.