Park Service revenue grows under fee program

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WASHINGTON -- The National Park Service and three other forest and wildlife agencies successfully increased their revenue under a program that permits them to retain a portion of the fees they collect, but three-fourths of the revenue remains unspent, according to a government study.

A General Accounting Office report found the National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service increased their total revenue from $93 million in 1996 to $179 million in 1998 under a demonstration fee program passed by Congress in 1996. The National Park Service alone accounted for 85% of the total revenue collected.

The program allows 206 sites to increase or create fees and retain 80% for infrastructure improvements. Under the program, which expires in 2001, the revenue must be used by 2004.

However, the GAO found about 76% of the revenue has not been spent. So far, the revenue has been used to cover capital and operating costs of collecting the fees, as well as backlogged repairs and maintenance and for visitor services.

But the GAO noted that the four federal agencies intend to make significant expenditures in 1999.

The GAO study also found:

  • Some sites may have a much greater potential than others for raising revenues, and that may lead to substantial inequities between sites.
  • Some sites may reach the point where they have more revenues than they need, while other sites do not have enough.
  • Preliminary data suggests that increased or new fees had no major adverse effect on visitation.
  • "Our initial response is [the study is] pretty accurate," said Jerome Uher, spokesman for the National Parks & Conservation Association, a national parks advocacy group. The parks "have been doing a good job in terms of raising revenue," Uher continued. "But the idea is to figure out not only how they can raise fees, but how they can charge fair rates for different usage. I don't know if they are experimenting with raising and lowering rates as much as they probably should."

    Jim Santini, Washington representative for the National Tour Association, praised the National Park Service for demonstrating "considerable professionalism in the implementation of the fee program" by "allowing for private sector feedback on the fee level, method of collection and the equity of the fees."

    Importantly, Uher said, the historically underfunded parks can now afford to make repairs. "There are $4 billion to $8 billion of infrastructure needs out there," Uher said. "That is at least triple the entire one-year budget of the park service. But the main funding for the parks should come from taxpayer dollars."

    Congress omitted from the federal budget this year a provision that would have extended the demonstration fee program, but Santini predicted it will be reintroduced next year.

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