From Yellowstone's crumbling roads to Big Bend's leaky sewer system, our popular national parks are falling apart. Throw more tax dollars at them? No. To fix them, we must follow the lead of state park systems that have found an answer to shrinking public funds. We must turn them into user- supported parks! So say Donald R. Leal and Holly Lippke Fretwell in a major new PERC study on America's parks, "Back to the Future to Save Our Parks."
National parks paid their own way in the early days through auto and concession fees. Because revenue stayed in the parks, managers saw a clear link between serving visitors and having funds to manage the parks. Unfortunately, Congress grabbed control of financing and this critical link was broken. Leal and Fretwell urge us to go "back to the future."
A growing number of state park systems are showing us that this is feasible. Leal and Fretwell note that sixteen state park systems earn at least half their operating funds from fees. Two systems fund their entire operations out of park-generated revenues. The push for greater revenue has led to better services. For example, Texas parks offer trail runs, fun runs, "owl prowls" alligator watching, wildlife safaris, and even a longhorn cattle drive.
Unfortunately, not all state park systems are headed in the right direction. Washington State, for example, is failing to move toward self-sufficiency and is "mired in red ink."
To fortify the case for self-support, Leal and Fretwell compare adjacent state and national parks. These parks share many of the same amenities. A key difference in each comparison is that the state park relies heavily on users for support, while the national park does not. The result: State parks earn more revenue per acre, spend less per acre, and offer more services. Moreover, their financial flexibility lets them spend dollars on park improvements. For additional details see Parks in Transition: A Look at 27 State Parks also by Leal and Fretwell.