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.