Up in Smoke: National Park Service Visitor Fees Diverted to Fund July 4th “Salute to America”

Recently, the Washington Post reported that funding the President’s Salute to America on the National Mall on July 4, 2019, involved the diversion of $2.5 million in funds derived from the National Park Service’s (NPS) park fees to fund a more elaborate celebration, including display of heavy military equipment, additional fireworks display, presidential address, and two military flyovers.

Salute to America, 2019. Image Courtesy of Daniel Scavino Jr.

The public outcry was immediate. Several members of the Senate Appropriations Committee lambasted the president for his questionable use of “limited Federal resources,” and requested that the Government Accountability Office launch a probe into the event’s actual cost to taxpayers.[1] Under normal circumstances, the use of some NPS funds to support this event wouldn’t be all that controversial. The Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall has traditionally included Department of Interior funds along with funding from other sources, and the National Park Service itself has typically borne part of the cost of past Fourth of July celebrations.[2] However, given this administration’s overall record on public lands, the intended use of the particular type of NPS funds diverted, and the history that has resulted in the NPS’s current fee structure, critiques of how the president chose to pay for a celebration that was deliberately more costly than in previous years becomes more understandable.

Public concern over where the funding comes from is bound up in related issues such as the increased cost of the event, the symbolism of the president dressing up a usually apolitical event in the trappings of a political campaign, and the fact that the president failed to work with Congress in order to budget and pay for it. It is also linked to the fact that this administration has not prioritized the protection of public lands, and has actively pursued policies and actions that damage them.

In 2017, the Trump Administration reduced Bears Ears National Monument’s acreage by 85%, and has suspended 41 different pieces of environmental protection legislation and two religious freedom laws to build a border wall across Organ Pipe National Monument and Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, which will irreversibly compromise the integrity of these and other historically and environmentally sensitive pieces of public land. These are just two examples among numerous of the Trump Administration’s repeated attacks on the National Park Service and on American public lands.

The type of funding the Trump Administration diverted—NPS park fees—renders the choice even more controversial. As Outside magazine points out, individual parks keep about 80% of the money they collect in entry fees. The fees are used for basic upkeep activities such as “maintenance projects, visitor services, and habitat restoration.”[3] Chronic underfunding of the NPS has resulted in a nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog, and the comparatively modest revenues from entry fees represent an important way that the parks preserve their resources in the face of a 19% increase in visitors over the past five years, alone.[4]

The Trump administration has openly acknowledged this as a threat to the parks. In its 2020 budget proposal for the Department of the Interior it maintained, despite its proposed cuts (among the largest in the service’s history), “One of Interior’s highest priorities remains to address the deferred maintenance backlog on Federal lands.” [5] The Trump administration’s decision to raid an NPS revenue stream that parks actually use to address those concerns is not only inconsistent with its previous statements, but also damages public trust that the fees visitors pay to access the National Parks are spent for their intended purpose.[6]

Park entry fees originally emerged as a way to maintain the National Park in which they were collected, but how tied they were to individual park units changed over time. Controlling this kind of revenue was also not always as important to supporting basic park functions as it is today. The NPS first implemented entry fees in 1908 at Mount Rainier, in the form of automobile permits. Other parks quickly followed suit, and by 1915 fees were also levied at General Grant, Carter Lake, Glacier, Yosemite, Sequoia, and Yellowstone.  The parks justified charging fees because they offset the cost of road-building needed to accommodate increasing numbers of visitors exploring the parks in automobiles, rather than on horseback or on foot.

Where the fees went shifted over time. By 1918, park entry fees went into a general Treasury fund, rather than remaining within the parks that collected them. The amount of money the parks collected was considerable, skyrocketing from around $15,000 in 1914 to $210,489 by 1921. [7] The amount the NPS put into the Treasury indirectly factored into the service’s overall appropriations, and Congress funded the National Parks at sustainable levels up to World War II.[8] Programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps provided an inexpensive source of personnel and labor for the NPS, and made Congressional appropriations stretch even further.

East face – Northeast Entrance Station, Northeast Entrance, Silver Gate, Park County, MT, 1938. Image courtesy of NPS.

After the war, the NPS’s situation had changed. World War II diverted federal funds from the National Park Service to support the war effort, but once the war ended, they were never restored. In addition, the CCC was disbanded in 1943, which cut off another stream of resources for the Park Service. In the face of exponentially rising visitation, conditions had deteriorated to the point that journalists began to raise concerns about “slum conditions” in the National Parks.[9]  In the context of slashed budgets for the National Parks, the question of fee increases, and of who was entitled to draw on park revenues, became more heated.

In 1953, under Director Conrad Wirth, the NPS raised entrance fees, in some cases for the first time since 1931. Despite the increases, revenues still fell far short of the expense of running the National Park System.[10] While the NPS received an infusion of much-needed funds under the Mission 66 program (1956-1966), which funded infrastructure and other developments that many credit with saving the National Parks, funding never returned to pre-war levels. In response to still-growing funding deficits, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965 returned authority over park fees back to the Department of the Interior, but land managers were not able to access the funds directly. The new arrangement for park fees sufficed until the early 1980s, when the question of fee revenues and Congressional appropriations resurrected in the context of the “small versus large” government debates of the 1980s.[11]

In 1982, the Office of Management and Budget recommended the near-complete shift of NPS funding to park fees, with the aim of ending Congressional appropriations for the NPS and other land management agencies almost entirely. The proposal drew bipartisan derision from Congress and failed, but the logic of giving individual units access to the fee revenue they collected persisted. The 1996 passage of the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program (Fee-Demo) expanded the lands managers could charge fees on and gave individual units control over the revenue they collected. While Fee-Demo was intended to show the possibilities of fee-based funding for public lands, it was deeply controversial and unpopular with the public.

The long-term impact of returning fees to individual parks was something of a double-edged sword. As Scott Silver notes in The George Wright Forum, “By providing this alternative funding mechanism, Congress was free to slash allocated funding and force land managers to become reliant upon user fees…” Fee-Demo’s supporters were also typically tied to a “limited government agenda” and advocated the privatization and commodification of public land. [12] However, the prospect of an immediate, direct stream of revenue for public lands was compelling for land managers and the Department of the Interior, alike.

The 2005 passage of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) represented a continuation of the “pay to play” model developed under Fee-Demo, but included some important adjustments and established specific uses for recreation fees. Focusing the use of fee revenue on enhancing the visitor experience on public lands was a way to sweeten the bitter use fee “pill” the act expected the public to swallow. In a statement to the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks, P. Lynn Scarlett, the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget for the Department of the Interior noted that FLREA limited the units that were permitted to collect fees, provided the public with the opportunity to comment on them, and required that agencies communicate what the fees were being used for, “in order to create a more transparent recreation fee program and ensure that we are better addressing the expectations of the visitor.”[13]

Today, FLREA still controls how parks can spend fee revenue. While the parks are now able to control the bulk of their own park fees, they are limited as to what they can spend the funds on. Fee-Demo and the FLREA swapped higher Congressional appropriations for increased control over fees at the unit level, but it was a bargain that has not paid off for public lands. The National Parks—even the units that are among the most heavily visited—currently operate under unsustainable levels of funding, and lack the flexibility to use the fees they collect to meet the full scope of their needs.

The Trump Administration’s decision to appropriate park entry fees did not take into account Congress’s intent for Fee-Demo and FLREA as legislative mechanisms meant to soften the blow of insufficient appropriations. In diverting park fees, the Trump Administration displayed its ignorance of the histories of both laws, betraying the expectation of park visitors that the fees they pay translate directly into improved conditions at the park unit they pay to access and that the park fees be used in a transparent manner—two of the key accommodations FLREA offered a public deeply frustrated by the fact that they were expected to pay fees to access public land at all.

Instead, the Trump Administration wants to have its cake, by continuing to cut already-slim appropriations for public lands, and eat it too by accessing park fee revenue and opportunistically and expansively interpret what an “enhancement of the visitor experience” means, even as the parks are limited by a narrow interpretation of the same law. Rather than actually improving the visitor experience in the National Parks according to the FLREA’s standards, attending to maintenance needs, or protecting the landscapes that represent the complexity and fullness of American history and American identity, this year on July Fourth, the Trump Administration sent a vitally important $2.5 million up in smoke.

-By Ariel Schnee

[1] Claudia Grisales, “Trump Announces 4th of July Salute Again As Democrats Press for Costs Probe,” National Public Radio, July 8, 2019, Accessed July 18, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/07/08/739552264/trump-announces-4th-of-july-salute-again-as-democrats-press-for-costs-robe.

[2] Juliet Eilperin, Josh Dawsey, and Dan Lamothe, “National Park Service Diverting $2.5 million to pay for Trump’s July Fourth event,” The Washington Post via The Boston Globe, July 3, 2019, Accessed July 18, 2019. https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/politics/2019/07/03/national-park-service-diverting-million-pay-for-trump-july-fourth-event/wjdNP0Bpv5JYfCDfTxYIPM/story.html.

[3] Chris Wright, “Our National Parks could do a lot with $2.5 million,” Outside Magazine Online, July 11, 2019, https://www.outsideonline.com/2399402/trump-fourth-of-july-party-2.5-million-national-parks.

[4] Rob Hotakainen, “’Reckless and Irresponsible:’ Dems assail NPS Budget,” E&E News, April 4, 2019, Accessed July 22, 2019, https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060142243. “Advocacy in Action: Support Increased National Park Funding,” The National Park Conservation Alliance, Accessed July 22, 2019, https://www.npca.org/advocacy/21-support-increased-national-park-funding.

[5] US Department of Interior, Fiscal Year 2020: The Interior Budget in Brief, March 2019, July 11, 2019, DH – 7, https://www.doi.gov/sites/doi.gov/files/uploads/2020_highlights_book.pdf.

[6] Juliet Eilperin, Josh Dawsey, and Dan Lamothe, “National Park Service Diverting $2.5 million to pay for Trump’s July Fourth event,” The Washington Post via The Boston Globe, July 3, 2019, Accessed July 18, 2019. https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/politics/2019/07/03/national-park-service-diverting-million-pay-for-trump-july-fourth-event/wjdNP0Bpv5JYfCDfTxYIPM/story.html.

[7] Barry Mackintosh, Visitor Fees in the National Park System: A Legislative and Administrative History, (Washington D.C.: History Division, National Park Service, Department of the Interior, 1983), July 11, 2019, https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/mackintosh3/fees0.htm.

[8] “Civilian Conservation Corps,” Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Accessed July 17, 2019, https://www.nps.gov/thro/learn/historyculture/civilian-conservation-corps.htm.

[9] Bernard DeVoto, “Let’s Close the National Parks,” quoted in Ethan Carr, Mission 66: Modernism and the National Park Dilemma, (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), 56.

[10] Barry Mackintosh, Visitor Fees in the National Park System: A Legislative and Administrative History, (Washington D.C.: History Division, National Park Service, Department of the Interior, 1983), July 11, 2019, https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/mackintosh3/fees0.htm.

[11] Barry Mackintosh, Visitor Fees in the National Park System: A Legislative and Administrative History, (Washington D.C.: History Division, National Park Service, Department of the Interior, 1983), July 11, 2019, https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/mackintosh3/fees0.htm. Scott Silver, “The Recreation Fee Demonstration Program and Beyond,” The George Wright Forum, 22.2 (2005), 68.

[12] Barry Mackintosh, Visitor Fees in the National Park System: A Legislative and Administrative History, (Washington D.C.: History Division, National Park Service, Department of the Interior, 1983), July 11, 2019, https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/mackintosh3/fees0.htm. Scott Silver, “The Recreation Fee Demonstration Program and Beyond,” The George Wright Forum, 22.2 (2005), 68-74.

[13] “FLREA: National Park Service’s Implementation of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, Statement of P. Lynn Scarlett, Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget, Department of the Interior, Before The Subcommittee on National Parks of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Converning The National Parks Service’s Implementation of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act Authorized in Public Law 108-447,” February 17, 2005. U.S. Department of the Interior, Accessed July 22, 2019, https://www.doi.gov/ocl/flrea.