Parks over politics

The latest government shutdown shows that America’s national parks are too important for politics

But if we aren’t running them on entrance fees, then how are parks funded?

If you’ve been to many national parks, it may be surprising to find out that your fees weren’t already supporting park maintenance. Park funding is mainly appropriated from discretionary funding from Congress. As public lands policy expert Reed Watson testified in 2017, based on his analysis of federal data, “approximately 12 percent of the National Park Service’s annual budget comes from user fees and donations.” This means that Congress decides just under 90 percent of the NPS budget on an annual basis.

NPS Congressional Appropriations (FY2009 — FY2018)

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Park Service FTEs v. National Park Visitors (Annually)

Image for postData note: Congressional Research Service and author’s calculations. To calculate 2018 numbers, which have not been released yet, I took the average visitation rates from 2014 through 2017.

Can we make parks nonpartisan?

Two changes can make the NPS less susceptible to DC’s partisan gridlock:

  • Second, encourage the NPS to experiment with public-private partnerships. Both the Forest Service and California have experimented with private management of publicly owned parks, with great success for conservation goals.

Give more authority to park managers

Those closest to the parks likely have the best knowledge about problems that those parks face. Freeing park funds from the one-size-fits-all model and devolving authority to park managers to make the decisions about where collected fees ought to be invested would empower those people with the necessary knowledge to run and protect their park.

Protect Parks With Public-Private Partnerships

Another way to insulate parks from political gridlock is to experiment with public-private partnerships. California, for example, uses private organizations to manage several of the state’s parks. The impetus for California’s experiment is not that different from our current situation. Facing several state parks due to close because of budget shortfalls, the state decided that privately managed parks were better than closures.

Image for postLimekiln State Park, one of California’s privately managed public parks. Photo Credit: “Limekiln State Park” by Kevin Stanchfield is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
This has also been tried at the federal level too. More than half of the recreation areas that the Forest Service is responsible for are actually taken care of by private companies. The Forest Service started its experiment with public-private partnerships in the 1980s because of budgetary cuts from Congress.


The $11 billion maintenance backlog should be reason enough to drastically rethink how we fund the National Park Service and that changes in park management policy are badly needed. However, the mistreatment parks have received as a result of being played as a political bargaining chip should be a greater cause for concern.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.