The private dollars that help fund our national parks

Oct 25, 2017

The National Park Service released a proposal today that would raise the entrance fee at its 17 most popular parks during peak visiting months. The rates would go from $25 or $30 to $70. They'll use the extra funds to help pay for a $12 billion backlog of maintenance and repairs at national parks across the country, which the agency's $3 billion budget won't cover all on its own. 

But besides entrance fees, there's another way the National Park Service can pay for initiatives that go beyond the money they get from the federal government. Filling in the gap is the National Park Foundation. Set up by Congress in 1967, the National Park Foundation is tasked with raising private funds for the National Park Service. Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Will Shafroth, the National Park Foundation's CEO. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

Kai Ryssdal: It is an interesting time now in the government and in the Department of the Interior specifically, of which the National Park Service is a part, just because of all the controversy over national monuments, which are not part of the Park Service, but also just how we use our public lands.

Will Shafroth: That's right. Actually some of the national monuments are part of the Park Service. Many of the other ones that are under review right now are in fact managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Ryssdal: But to the point, you know Secretary [Ryan] Zinke has some views on how public lands ought to be used in this country. It must be a little awkward when the head of National Park Service, and maybe yourself as well, get in the same room with him?

Shafroth: You know what, Secretary Zinke has been hugely supportive of the National Parks and understands the value of public-private partnerships. So he's a member of our board of directors, and he has been actually quite supportive of the work that we're doing to raise private funds to support the kind of work that's happening in the parks.

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Ryssdal: I imagine it's an easy ask when you say, "Listen, we need x amount of dollars for the National Park Foundation, because who doesn't like the national parks?" 

Shafroth: Yes.

Ryssdal: It's funny, you rolled your eyes. 

Shafroth: Well, it's because we're competing for people's charitable dollars, in effect, because they care about their schools and their their civic interest. They care about social services. And so we have to make a case and really appeal to their emotions in many cases to ensure that we get a piece of their charitable pie. And the great thing about national parks is that there is something for everybody.

Ryssdal: There is something in the national parks and in the great outdoors for everybody, but there is also a diversity issue with access to and the people who use the national parks in this country. How do we, how do you, since it's your job, not mine, get that access more widely distributed, I guess is a way to put it?

Shafroth: It's a great question and was one of the big questions that led into the centennial of the national parks a few years ago. We actually did some research with the National Park Service to look at who is coming to the parks. The millennial generation, which actually self-identifies as 45 percent nonwhite, so by definition very diverse, was not finding the national parks very relevant to their lives. And so we started something called the "Find Your Park" campaign and began to awaken that generation to the importance of national parks. And we're beginning to see some real movement in their engagement and their advocacy and support of the parks.

Ryssdal: And attendance? Do you see people of color and younger people getting into the National Parks?

Shafroth: Yeah, there isn't actually a demographic survey at the Park Service. They don't check people at the gate and have them fill out a form. But we know that visitation is up dramatically in the last four years. About 60 million more people went in 2016 than 2013.

Ryssdal: When you leave this job in however long you decide that's going to be, what do you hope the national parks system in this country looks like?

Shafroth: Well, I'm hoping that the national park system can be healthier, if you will, and what I mean by that is that they have the resources they need to support the kinds of work that needs to happen. And every park is experiencing different levels of their maintenance backlog being oversubscribed, and so there's a $12 billion need in the system to support basic maintenance.

Ryssdal: Is that right?

Shafroth: Yeah.

Ryssdal: That's amazing.

Shafroth: They have a $3 billion annual budget to cover everything. And on top of that, there's a $12 billion backlog.

Ryssdal: $3 billion budget and $12 billion backlog. It's not like you guys can raise enough money to fix that, right? How can that be faced? Because that's not sustainable.

Shafroth: Well, I think there's actually a lot of interest in Congress right now in addressing that maintenance backlog. There's actually bills that have been introduced, and I know the administration is looking closely at this. I also think that we can be more effective in deploying private investment dollars.

Ryssdal: Should we go to, like, Honeywell for AC improvements and GE for lighting in the parks, is that what I'm hearing?

Shafroth: Could be. There's a lot of different lighting companies that are helping. In Big Bend National Park, for instance, there was a lighting company that went in there and reduced the lighting bill by more than 90 percent. We also want to see that the parks are visited by all citizens of this country. And finally, that they are not just the places that everybody knows about — Yellowstone, and Grand Teton, and Yosemite, and Grand Canyon — but the lesser-known parks. And I would hope that the visitation is spread so those kinds of places are appreciated as well.

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