Today, we wish a very happy 100th birthday to the National Park Service. A century ago, President Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation creating the National Park Service (although, as Ken Burns will readily tell you, some National Parks actually predate the federal department). But on this auspicious birthday, one sore subject must be addressed, because the National Park Service is currently considering an idea which would be abhorrent to millions of their visitors. Since they're seeking new ideas in this area, I thought I'd share a few of my own.
Personally, I love National Parks. I've been to over half of them, although I couldn't give you an accurate percentage since the last time I added them up was 2009 (and since then, several more have been created). Back then, I had been to 55 percent of the parks, from Acadia to Zion and all points in between. Each is spectacular in their own way -- some flashier than others, some more quiet and subdued. I don't think I've ever had a bad experience in a National Park, or at least not one of my own stupidity's making (I once locked my car keys in a car that was running in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park... long story short, got rescued by a ranger with a slim-jim). One of the first parks I ever visited was one of the smallest of all, Greenbelt National Park (a park so small most maps didn't even used to show it), in the D.C. suburb of the same name (a planned "green" community promoted by Eleanor Roosevelt). I've even routinely given my year-end "Best Governmental Dollar Spent" award to the National Park Service, because it is the thing I am perhaps the proudest to pay my tax money for.
Which gives me an opening to what this article is really about. Lots of people are wishing the National Park Service well today, but few are addressing any of its problems. The biggest problem the N.P.S. faces is the same one many federal agencies face on a regular basis: a lack of adequate funding from Congress. Park budgets are always given less than they really need, which creates a yearly backlog of maintenance and services. It's getting so bad that earlier this year the N.P.S. announced it was flirting with the idea of actually allowing corporate sponsorships -- not of whole parks, but perhaps creating "branding opportunities" for certain buildings or sites.
This is a misguided idea at best, and a revolting and horrifying one at worst. Parks are supposed to provide refuge from many aspects of modern life, and commercialization and corporate consumerism would be high on my list of things I'd like to escape from while visiting. No "Coca-Cola restroom" buildings in Yosemite, please, or "Microsoft trail" in the Great Smoky Mountains. But if the N.P.S. is truly that desperate for cash, I have three ideas for how to improve their own bottom line. I've presented them below, ranked in order of how objectionable they might first seem.
Run your own concessions
Most National Parks have concessions. They sell food, firewood, camping supplies, and souvenirs. Well, some parks are bigger and have more services, and some have only bare-bones services at best. But in all parks (as far as I am aware), the concessions businesses are contracted out to third parties. This means the N.P.S. is leaving a whopping amount of money on the table -- they're freely handing over millions of dollars to independent concession operators and are content to just rake in a small percentage off the top.
This would be fine and good if the parks weren't hurting for funding. Since they are, they need to transition to a different business model. Concessions represent an enormous amount of money to be made -- just ask any touring rock group (who routinely make more off of T-shirt sales than actual concert tickets).
There's a philosophical problem to be addressed, here. The rangers of the National Park Service view their work as a sacred trust and obligation (for the most part), and are loath to get involved in such crass activities as hawking T-shirts and posters. Now, I agree that it would be foolish to have a full-fledged ranger behind the counter of a gift shop, because his or her experience and skills could obviously be better used elsewhere. But what is to stop the N.P.S. from creating a whole new class of employee? Hire local teenagers, or maybe add a category to Americorps or something. Hand it off to another federal department, maybe. Or, to keep things tasteful, have the Smithsonian run all the concessions. Whatever -- there are plenty of ways to set this up so that real park rangers aren't flipping burgers for the tourists.
The N.P.S. would have to pay out more in salaries, obviously. And they'd have to do all the paperwork involved. But then they'd be free to rake in all the profits as well -- which would go a long way towards making the park system self-supporting (that's my guess). This would also help standardize the concessions across the whole system. Currently, due to different contracts being awarded to different companies, park concessions are somewhat of a crap-shoot. You find the best gift stores in some very obscure parks (I think the best one I ever experienced was in Wind Cave National Park, in fact, which most people would be hard-pressed to locate on a map).
The National Park Service is hurting for money, and at the same time they're letting millions of tourist dollars go untapped. It's raining soup, and they're complaining that they don't have a bucket. In looking for vast amounts of more money, the N.P.S. need look no further than their own gift shops.
Sell gas in large parks
I told you these were going to increase in how objectionable they might sound, didn't I? Well, this one is sure to raise a few hackles in lovers of National Parks. There is nothing quite so opposite to the stated ecological and conservationist goals of the National Park Service than to sell fossil fuels inside their borders -- I do realize that.
My advice would be to get over it. To be clear, I am not talking about throwing up a gas station right next to the visitors' center at every National Park. Many National Parks are located close to outside towns where gasoline is available at a reasonable price. These, obviously, wouldn't need (or want) to sully their pristine nature with a gas station.
However, once you get west of the Mississippi, not only do the parks get bigger, but they also get a lot more remote. Visitors unused to the regions regularly get caught short, because driving around the East Coast or the Midwest means never being all that far from a gas station. When the needle inches towards "E," you look around and pick one, then stop in and fill up. The West is a different story. Towns can be a long way away from each other, especially in the remote regions where many parks are located. If you don't plan ahead, you might wind up by the side of the road. Many do.
In many of these parks in the West, parasitical towns spring up just outside the borders of the park. The motto of these towns is a simple one: "Whatever the market can bear." Or: "Gouge, gouge, gouge!" or perhaps: "Make them scream!" They can't even be accurately labeled tourist traps, because there's usually nothing there to see at all -- they are merely selling their proximity to the National Park, plain and simple.
Now, it's one thing to stratospherically hike the price of food or hotel rooms next to a park. After all, you don't have to stay there or eat there, especially if you have planned ahead. But charging a full two (or sometimes even three) bucks extra for a gallon of gas is nothing short of profiteering. When checking statewide gasoline prices in California, there's a station just outside of Yosemite National Park which routinely tops the list, just to cite one particularly egregious example. If you have no other option because the next-nearest gas station is 70 miles away, then you are the perfect rube for them to fleece. Which they will gladly do.
The N.P.S. could make a pretty penny and bring a halt to most of this predatory practice simply by selling gas within the bigger (and more remote) parks. Some of the larger parks in the West actually have gas stations within them (to fuel up their own vehicle fleet), in fact. So it really wouldn't be all that big a leap to opening a few pumps up to the public. Set a simple percentage for a profit margin (a reasonable one, mind you), and sell gas from a tastefully-designed green and brown gas station, located nowhere near the park's major sites.
Not only would this bring in extra money for the N.P.S., it would in fact make rangers' jobs easier, because there would be far fewer instances of tourists running out of gas somewhere within the park. That saves time and effort that has nothing to do with a park ranger's main duties. And it would force the parasitical towns at the park's borders to back off the obscene prices they routinely charge. Again, I'm not suggesting putting up a gas station next to the Lincoln Memorial or anything, but where the need is acute, selling gas to tourists would be a beneficial thing all around.
Charge foreigners more to enter
This is the most objectionable (and perhaps downright offensive) suggestion I have. But to me, it is a matter of fairness, so please allow me the chance to justify such a radical proposal.
American citizens and permanent residents pay federal taxes. Some of those federal taxes pay for our National Park Service. When you visit a National Park, you are taking advantage of the subsidies from all our collective taxes, to put it another way. The N.P.S. tries to keep entrance fees and camping fees as low as possible, which is indeed what they should do. Visiting a National Park shouldn't be like visiting a theme park, where they gouge you for every last nickel. It's not all about making money, in other words, which is as it should be.
But given their lack of money, the N.P.S. has to keep inching their fees upwards. If my first two proposals didn't cover the park budgets, then sooner or later they're going to think about hiking the entrance fees. So why not first hike them on people who do not pay any federal taxes?
This pricing model already exists at the state level. Look into any state's university system, and you'll find a wide disparity between the tuition they charge in-state students and the prices they set for out-of-state students (from other American states and from foreign students alike). The rationale is clear: the parents of in-state students have paid into the state tax system for years, and are thus entitled to subsidized prices for the state-run university system. People from outside the state don't pay in to that state's tax system at all, so they are charged full price rather than a subsidized price. This difference can sometimes be as great as 10-to-1, in fact.
I'm not proposing charging foreigners ten times as much to visit a U.S. National Park, but perhaps double might be considered within reason. When entering a park, if the driver of the vehicle can produce a U.S. driver's license or a green card, they'd get the subsidized price. Foreigners traveling alone or tour buses full of foreigners would be charged full weight, however. Since they've never paid federal income taxes, they'd have to pony up to visit our National Parks.
For anyone who thinks this might not bring in all that much additional revenue, I invite you to visit any of the National Parks in the American Southwest -- those within range of the old Route 66, basically. Touring the old Route 66 is a wildly popular thing for foreign tourists to do, as evidenced by how many languages you'll hear being spoken at every park you stop at. Charging them twice the price of admission isn't going to crimp their travel budgets all that much, either. And it would give those who pay taxes to support the parks their entire lives a break.
Some might call this xenophobic or exclusionary, but I disagree. I'm not saying turn anyone away from a National Park based on where in the world you live, I'm just saying they should pay their fair share of the upkeep of the parks they visit. If the National Park Service were flush with cash and were considering lowering entrance fees, then obviously such an idea would be unthinkable.
But we are where we are. National Parks are considering begging for corporate cash (in exchange for possible naming rights). They beg Congress for adequate funding each and every year. They are obviously looking for new streams of revenue.
I've outlined three such streams, and while I do not have estimates of how much money they could bring in, I can state with confidence that it'd definitely add to what the National Park Service is currently making each year. The addition of teenage N.P.S. employees running concessions and a few gas stations doesn't seem like all that monumental a change when stacked up against corporate sponsorships, and charging foreigners more wouldn't even impact American citizens or residents one bit.
So while I do wish the National Park Service a very happy centennial birthday, if they want to have the next 100 years be as successful as the last century, perhaps it is time to consider a few creative ideas to fully fund what is (in my humble opinion) one of the best things the federal government spends money on every year.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant