It is time to tell Washington that games need to stop. Americans overwhelmingly agree that federal deficits need to be cut and that federal spending reductions need to be a big part of this effort.
But few Americans support across-the-board cuts that treat all federal programs the same or believe that all government programs are wasteful. And few Americans believe that a 5 percent cut in spending needs to result in closed national parks, 3-hour security screenings at airports and aircraft carriers being docked.
Americans feel that sequestration is a poor way to prompt the kind of decisions needed to ensure that federal spending is under control. They are right. Most Americans have gone through 5 percent cuts in their own households, at their own churches and where they work. And they know that most of these cuts haven’t had devastating impacts — in fact, in many cases they have helped refocus our energy and funds to achieve improvements.
We need to both challenge and empower the agencies caring for America’s public lands and waters to develop sustainable plans for supplementing traditional appropriations of general tax revenues. It would be easy, and perhaps even politically possible, to call for the exemption of spending on national parks and for other important federal recreation programs from sequestration and budget cutting, but it would also be wrong.
There are ways to sustain quality opportunities for boating, for fishing and for other recreation at federal sites long into the future. In fact, some of the federal programs supporting boating involving special taxes and fees are at least partially protected from sequestration.
But boating in national parks and on other waters accessed from federal lands faces challenges — at locations such as Lake Mead and Lake Powell, in Biscayne Channel Islands National Parks and on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., and hundreds of other sites — from the sequestration process. The nation’s top provider of recreation — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — hosts millions of boater visits annually and is especially vulnerable to sequestration cuts since it lacks the authority to retain any fees that it collects to fund its recreational boating efforts.
The recreation community needs to assist federal agencies in lessening dependence on the highly political appropriations process. We’ve begun with the identification of 10 specific steps for the National Park Service to consider, but many of the concepts are applicable to all federal agencies key to quality boating and fishing experiences.
First, services provided by NPS and other federal agencies are valued by visitors who willingly pay for entrance, use of campsites, interpretive programs, use of boat ramps and slips, and more. In most cases, these services are currently underpriced. In major parks a carload of visitors may enter a park, or several parks in the same geographic area, for a seven day period at a cost of $10, $15 — but never more than $25.
Modest changes, including changing fees to a daily fee or charging for each adult visitor, would increase NPS funding substantially. In addition, there are many parks that charge no fee, and many fee sites do not collect fees 24 hours a day. In both cases, one of the key arguments is the cost of collection. Automated and remote collection could also greatly increase the efficiency of fee collection. Likely simple additional net revenues to the NPS from this action: $75 million annually.
Second, there are roles and functions that could and should be reviewed and could be transferable to private-sector operations. For example, NPS directly operates most of its campgrounds while a sister federal agency, the Forest Service, relies largely on concessioners.
NPS campgrounds are now underutilized, full only during peak seasons and some weekends. Concessioner operation would add camper services, introduce dynamic pricing and start marketing these campgrounds. NPS costs would drop by millions of dollars, its receipts from franchise fees would rise and campers would have increased satisfaction levels. Estimated net financial gain from this change is at least $25 million.
Third, there are easy management actions to reduce spending. More than 20 large concessions contracts are now on 10-year cycles. Each costs NPS millions of dollars to produce a prospectus, perform an evaluation of offers and develop a new contract. In many instances, current concessioners are operating at a level that any independent evaluator would label as superior. Extending the contract cycle from 10 to 15 years is allowed by law, and this would achieve an immediate savings of at least $5 million annually.
Fourth, limitations on current concessions operations prevent millions of visits and more than $100 million in spending each year. The last boat accessing the Statue of Liberty departs Manhattan at 3:30 p.m. during peak season — a National Park Service curfew. Nighttime tours of Alcatraz are very limited, robbing many of both the experience on the island and the breathtaking view of San Francisco.
Lodges at many national parks open and close at NPS-defined dates, even when there is great demand for rooms before and after. At an average franchise fee of 15 percent at the key sites, an increase in revenues of $100 million would generate $15 million each year in additional franchise fees to the National Park Service.
Fifth, the U.S. Congress recently directed the Forest Service to expand summer recreation opportunities at ski areas on national forests. Many don’t realize that 60 percent of U.S. skiing occurs on national forests at privately developed areas such as Vail and Mammoth and Snowbird and more. This is going to add the equivalent of more than 1,000 jobs within two years.
Allowing park concessioners to add agreed-upon services — from bike and boat rentals to camera safaris to tent and yurt rentals — easily could boost visitor spending by $20 million annually quickly — another $3 million in fees to the NPS.
Sixth, we need to invite international visitors, but also not subsidize them. U.S. taxpayers now provide well over 90 percent of the budget of our parks. International visitors should not be eligible for purchases of America the Beautiful passes, where they have unlimited access to all parks for just $80. That should be reserved for Americans.
And we should be charging international visitors a per-person entry fee, rather than a per-car fee. The nation has set a goal of increasing international visitors to the U.S. from the current level of about 60 million annually to 100 million, and we know from surveys that about 20 percent of all international visitors will visit a national park.
If each visits at least three, and per-person entry fees are $10, then just the additional visitors would generate $240 million in additional fees annually! And imagine if NPS were encouraged to use a portion of this income to aid Brand USA in its promotion overseas!
Seventh, the percentage of NPS employees in the field has shrunk. Unlike in most private-sector organizations, we have not seen a flattening in the NPS management structure. Stimulus spending from 2008 to 2011 largely protected federal agencies from cutbacks. NPS still has a national headquarters staff, regional staffs and park management staffs.
Even where regions have been combined, “losing” cities such as Seattle and Boston continue to have NPS offices with several hundred employees. Although staff reductions should not be proscriptive and mandated, it is reasonable to expect that reductions caused by sequestration and generally tighter budgets should be prioritized to avoid impacts on visitor services and other field functions.
Eighth, federal agencies, including the National Park Service, need to be open to partnerships with recreation, travel and tourism interests. Visitors aboard cruise ships in Alaska and on certain Amtrak trains are offered interpretive programs presented by NPS staff and NPS-trained volunteers — paid for by the tourism industry.
There are great opportunities for shared-cost interpretive programs and other services. The travel and tourism industry is involved in lodging, rental-car and other taxes that generate billions of dollars, paying for promotion of areas and even paying for professional stadiums and convention centers.
Gateways dependent on national parks and other federal attractions can be expected to support programs that deliver better guest experiences. A modest and sustainable goal would be to secure $10 million annually in in-kind and cash support for visitor services for use to aid federal lands visitors.
Ninth, the National Park Service and other federal agencies have authorized steps to encourage visitors to make voluntary donations. The program for national parks, called the Guest Donation Program, currently involves fewer than 20 parks and generates about $1 million annually.
The National Park Hospitality Association has proposed changes that would boost the annual level of giving to $10 million annually and would supply the National Park Foundation and local park friends organizations with leads on park visitors making contributions designed to encourage greater giving to local parks and the National Park Service Centennial Program.
And tenth and lastly, it is time to put the National Park Service and all federal land agencies back in the outreach and promotion business. The U.S. Travel Bureau was once an office in the National Park Service, and the first National Park Service director saw marketing as a primary goal to gain public support for national parks.
Visitation to national parks today is below the levels of the late 1980s despite a population increase of more than 30 percent. The number of campsites, lodge rooms and restaurant chairs has declined. It is time to promote our parks and build capacity in our parks — not with taxpayer funding, but with private investments, just as the lodges we now cherish were built largely by railroads and supporters such as the Rockefeller family.
Were we to raise visitation to the same proportion of the nation that visited parks in the 1980s, visitation would be approaching 375 million visits and the combination of increased entrance fees, camping fees and fees paid by concessioners would likely rise by 30 percent, as well — or nearly $100 million annually and sustainably.
Adding up the results of these 10 steps generates a new income stream that dwarfs the projected $115 million sequestration cut — nearly half a billion dollars in increased revenues. Time to take some actions!
Derrick Crandall is president and chief executive officer of the American Recreation Coalition, a position he has held since 1981, and a partner in Outdoor Solutions USA. He also serves as counselor to and executive director of the National Park Hospitality Association.