The National Park Service has a backlog of $5.6 billion in construction and maintenance projects for roads, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure. Neither taxpayers (through congressional appropriators) nor park visitors are likely to cough up the money to break this almost literal logjam. The federal budget deal provides about 10 percent of the required funds; a hike in park user fees approved this spring may bring in another $50 million over the next fiscal year.
A July report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation suggests an alternative: Let the park service borrow money to finance construction. The report, "Restoring Our Heritage," urges Congress to set up a National Park Authority, much like the Federal Housing Administration or the Tennessee Valley Authority, with the power to issue debt for construction and maintenance projects. If the park authority rather than the Treasury Department received all the entrance and concession fees from national parks, the authority could borrow (and service) more than $1.2 billion, alleviating that backlog.
Both House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), chairman of the subcommittee on parks, historic preservation, and recreation, have expressed support for the concept. But Don Leal, senior associate at the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, is skeptical. "If [parks] borrowed money on the open market and tied payback to money earned at the facilities, [establishing a borrowing authority] is a decent idea," he says. But a single agency that can borrow money for all the parks, and issue government-backed debt, says Leal, gives Congress and the park service "another [way] to dip into the pork barrel."
Leal is co-author of "Back to the Future to Save our
Parks," a PERC study that proposes several other ways
the park service could raise money without tapping taxpayers or distorting credit markets. Leal and the NRDC agree that revenue generated by the parks should stay with the park service rather than going to the general treasury. But Leal would have each park keep the revenue it generates.
He also suggests letting each park establish a separate endowment for capital improvements, seeded by individual contributions, foundation grants, or corporate sponsors. The first Audubon Society nature preserves were maintained with private funds. And Washington state started a program similar to the one Leal envisions early in 1996, which Leal says is too new to evaluate.