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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.
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.
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.