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How are National Parks Funded?

National parks are treasures safeguarded by public and private funds. Taxpayer dollars, entrance fees, and donations sustain these natural sanctuaries, ensuring their preservation for future generations. Grants and partnerships also play a vital role. But how does this complex financial ecosystem balance conservation with accessibility? Discover the intricate funding tapestry that keeps our national parks thriving. What's your park's story?
Paul Woods
Paul Woods

National parks in the United States (US) are funded in three main ways: direct funding by the government, user fees, and donations. Support from the government makes up the largest portion of funding. In times of reduced government spending or economic hardship where parks draw fewer paying visitors, philanthropic donations often make up an increasing portion of the parks’ budgets.

The US national park system was established in March 1872 when Congress authorized creation of Yosemite National Park in California. The National Park Service (NPS) was established to oversee all of these parks in 1916. There are more than 50 in the US, and they are administered by more than 20,000 NPS employees.

The USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor.
The USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor.

Park funding from the government runs into the billions of US dollars (USD) annually. Money from the government is usually broken down into two types of uses: discretionary spending and mandatory spending. Discretionary spending covers normal park operations and special events. Mandatory spending goes to programs created and mandated by specific legislation.

Visitors under the age of 16 receive free admission to all U.S. national parks.
Visitors under the age of 16 receive free admission to all U.S. national parks.

In the early years of the operation of the NPS, fees charged to park visitors were not authorized by Congress. Reduced government spending in subsequent years was compensated for by allowing parks to collect small fees with a cap on the amount. More recently, Congress has raised this cap so that user fees now generate more than $1 billion USD annually.

Corporate and individual donations have become an increasingly important component of park funding. Congress created the National Park Foundation where tax-deductible contributions can be made to a general fund to be used at the foundation’s discretion to support the parks. Individual groups also exist, typically near a park, to funnel financial support to that particular park.

The National Park Foundation works closely with the NPS to create opportunities to both generate money and interest in the parks. Each year, one week in April is designated as National Park Week. During this week, all of the parks are open free to the public.

Many national parks have a Friends of the Park organization that provides local support in similar fashion to the Foundation. These organizations often provide information about the park that is designed to enhance visitor enjoyment. They also typically raise money through soliciting direct donations and by hosting special events. Many groups also operate retail stores that feature park memorabilia.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the primary sources of funding for National Parks?

National Parks are primarily funded through federal appropriations from Congress, which provide the bulk of their operational budget. This includes money for staffing, maintenance, conservation efforts, and visitor services. Additionally, parks generate revenue through fees such as entrance fees, campground fees, and concessionaire fees. According to the National Park Service, these fees are used for projects that directly benefit visitors, including repairing and improving facilities, enhancing services, and protecting resources.

How much of the National Park Service's budget comes from visitor fees?

Visitor fees make up a significant portion of the National Park Service's budget. As reported by the National Park Service, in 2019, the National Park Service collected over $199.9 million in recreation fees. Under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, 80% of the fees collected at a national park remain in that park, while the remaining 20% is distributed to other national parks that do not collect fees.

Do donations play a role in funding National Parks?

Yes, donations are an important supplemental source of funding for National Parks. These contributions come from individuals, foundations, and corporations and are often facilitated by nonprofit partners like the National Park Foundation. Donations can support specific projects, educational programs, restoration efforts, and land acquisition. For example, philanthropic support has been crucial in expanding park boundaries and preserving historic sites within the parks.

Are there any other innovative funding mechanisms for National Parks?

Beyond traditional funding sources, National Parks also benefit from innovative funding mechanisms such as public-private partnerships. These partnerships can leverage private investment to enhance infrastructure and visitor services without additional taxpayer costs. Additionally, volunteer programs contribute significant value, with volunteers providing millions of hours of service each year, which the National Park Service estimates to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in labor cost savings.

How does the funding for National Parks impact their maintenance and operations?

Funding levels directly impact the maintenance and operations of National Parks. Adequate funding ensures that parks can maintain trails, roads, visitor centers, and historical structures, as well as provide educational programs and resource protection. However, the National Park Service has faced challenges with deferred maintenance, which reached $11.9 billion in 2018. Addressing this backlog requires sustained investment to preserve these natural and cultural treasures for future generations.

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Discussion Comments

Oceana

I visit Zion National Park in Utah once a year for the Zion Plein Air Art Event. A group of selected artists paint outside at various locations in the park, and visitors can watch.

The Zion National Park Foundation works to raise funds by putting on events like these. During the Plein Air Event, the artists offer workshops for a fee, and this helps raise money for the park. Also, at the end of the event, the art is offered for sale, and that helps raise more funds.

The Zion Natural History Association benefits also, because these artists’ paintings preserve the way that the park looks at a certain point in time. Each year, the new paintings reflect changes in the environment, so visitors can see how the park has evolved throughout the years.

cloudel

My husband and I always take our vacation during National Park Week. We take the kids to Yellowstone National Park every day during that week. It is only a 30 minute drive from our house, so except for the cost of gas, we get a free vacation.

Our kids are at the age where they are fascinated by all things outdoors. When they grow into teenagers, we may have to reformulate our vacation plan, but for now, it is perfect. We picnic, we hike, and we let their imaginations run wild, playing along with any make-believe situations that they concoct.

orangey03

I am happy to support any national park that I visit. I live in the city in an apartment, and I go stir crazy inside with no yard to walk around in, so the nearby national park is worth a lot to me.

The beauty of the lake and the grounds that are taken care of by park rangers feeds my soul. I grew up in the country with a large yard, and as soon as I can afford to, I am going to move into a house surrounded by acreage and trees.

Though the user fees have gone up slightly, I can still get in for the price of lunch. So, I just pack my lunch one day a week and trade the meal I would have bought for a day at the park.

sunnySkys

@Monika - I understand your frustration. You have to understand though that the parks are just as strapped for cash as the rest of us these days! They need to get money to run somehow. If they can't get it from the government and private donors don't step up the only other place to look for the money is from the general public.

Monika

I think it's really unfortunate that park fees are usually instated during times of budget cuts. Usually budget cuts are due to a poor economy; this is a time when people are least able to afford to do anything.

If parks were free they would be a nice alternative to more costly forms of recreation and family outings. Even though the article says a "small fee" I don't think is always the case.

There is a park near where I live with a lake at it that is great for swimming. They've been steadily increasing the price for the last few years and now it's something like $12 a person. That really adds up if you're taking a family of 4!

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    • The USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor.
      By: John Sfondilias
      The USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor.
    • Visitors under the age of 16 receive free admission to all U.S. national parks.
      By: frenk58
      Visitors under the age of 16 receive free admission to all U.S. national parks.