Letting Parks Retain User Fees Could Ease Problems


LOS ANGELES—As American families squeeze in those last few weekend trips before cool weather arrives, travelers may notice a few more potholes than usual along the roads in our national parks.

The National Park Service has a backlog of $ 5.6 billion in construction and maintenance projects for roads, bridges, dams and other infrastructure. And this almost literal logjam isn't likely to clear up soon.

The federal budget deal passed in July provides only about 10 percent of the funds needed for construction projects already scheduled, and a hike in user fees approved this spring probably will bring in no more than $ 50 million the next fiscal year.

Conventional preservationist groups and more market-oriented environmentalists agree that the typical sources of park funding—congressional appropriations and entry fees—can't generate enough money to keep up with the maintenance demands of the national parks.

A recent report 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 would be able to borrow (and service) more than $ 1.2 billion, alleviating that backlog.

Both House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Sen. Craig Thomas of Wyoming, 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, Mont., is skeptical.

Establishing a borrowing authority would be a decent idea, he said, if parks "borrowed money on the open market and tied payback to money earned at the facilities."

But a single agency that can borrow money for all the parks, and issue government-backed debt gives Congress and the Park Service another way "to dip into the pork barrel."

Giving the National Park Service an open line of credit could make it even more of a political agency that caters to the interests of well-connected legislators.

Federal highway dollars, for instance, have funded "demonstration projects" to relieve traffic congestion in counties with fewer than 10,000 residents and a $ 30 million moving sidewalk in Altoona, Pa., home of Republican Rep. Bud Shuster.

And that was when the Republicans were still in the minority on Capitol Hill.

But there are opportunities to restore and preserve national parks without tapping taxpayers or distorting credit markets.

Leal and the Natural Resources Defense Council agree that revenue generated by park visitors and commercial concessionaires should not go to the federal treasury but instead should stay within the Park Service.

But in "Back to the Future to Save our Parks," a study by the Political Economy Research Center that Leal co-wrote, Leal recommends allowing each park to keep the money it generates.

A "successful" park (one that attracts lots of visitors) would then have money to pay for its own maintenance and construction rather than hoping Congress would shell out funds in the annual appropriations process.

Leal also suggests letting each park establish a separate endowment fund for capital improvements, seeded by individual contributions, foundation grants or corporate sponsors.

Endowment funds could expand by investing in stocks, bonds or mutual funds, like the endowments operated by universities and museums.