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General government > 23. National Park Service Fees

The National Park Service could potentially increase revenues from the recreation fees it collects by millions of dollars annually if Congress were to amend the authorizing legislation for this program and if the agency required park units to periodically review these fees.

Why This Area Is Important

The National Park Service (Park Service) has reported that its funding does not cover the full cost of its mission to preserve the 409 park units it manages.  The result has been the growth of a maintenance backlog for the buildings, trails, and artifacts for which the agency is responsible. As of September 30, 2014, the Park Service estimated this maintenance backlog had grown to about $11.5 billion.[1] Funding for the Park Service is generally composed of annual appropriations along with revenues generated from fees and donations that the Park Service is authorized to collect and use.  In fiscal year 2014, the Park Service had about $3.1 billion in total funding, of which 84 percent ($2.6 billion) came from annual appropriations and 15 percent ($473 million) from fees, donations, and other funding sources.[2] From fiscal year 2005 through fiscal year 2014, annual appropriations declined by 8 percent after adjusting for inflation, while fees, donations, and other funding sources increased 39 percent after adjusting for inflation.

Among these fees, donations, and other funding sources, the largest portion comes from recreation fees that the Park Service is authorized to collect and use by the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA).[3] Recreation fees are generally comprised of entrance fees and amenity fees for certain equipment and services, such as campgrounds.  In fiscal year 2014, the Park Service collected about $186 million in recreation fees, of which about 76 percent came from entrance fees.  However, certain parks are prohibited by law from charging entrance fees.  According to Park Service data, 58 park units are prohibited by law from charging entrance fees.  For example, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act prohibits the Park Service from charging entrance fees at all park units in Alaska.[4] In addition, at some park units, collecting recreation fees is precluded by the configuration of the parks or is not economically advantageous. For example, at parks with few visitors, the costs of administering the fee collection program would be a significant portion of the total fees collected, and these parks may choose not to charge an entrance fee.



[1]National Park Service, Fiscal Year 2014 Deferred Maintenance Reports (Mar. 23, 2015).

[2]Percentages do not add up to 100 percent because of rounding.

[3]Pub. L. No. 108-447, div. J. tit. VIII, 118 Stat. 3377 (2004) (codified as amended at 16 U.S.C. §§ 6801-6814 (2015)).

[4]16 U.S.C. § 410hh-2 (2015). FLREA excepts Denali National Park and Preserve from this prohibition. 16 U.S.C.   § 6802(d)(3)(G) (2015).

What GAO Found

In August 2014, the Director of the Park Service issued a memorandum that ended a moratorium on entrance fee increases that had been in place since 2008 and updated the agency’s entrance fee rate schedule for the first time since 2006.  According to this memorandum, the goal was for parks that collected entrance fees to align with the schedule by 2017 if these changes were supported by the public.  In response to the 2014 memo, 111 park units increased recreation fees, as of September 2015.  However, in its December 2015 report, GAO found that several park units that were collecting some type of entrance fee in 2015 did not increase entrance fees and may not align with the fee schedule by 2017.  In addition, the Park Service does not require park units to provide information supporting their decisions on not increasing entrance fee rates or increasing their fees by less than the fee schedule.  According to a senior Park Service official, park units are not required to provide this information because it was not compulsory that park units increase their fees.  By not requiring that parks provide information on decisions that deviate from the fee schedule, the Park Service may not have relevant information that would help to manage changes to recreation fees more effectively and ensure that park units are taking steps to determine whether entrance fees are set at a reasonable level.  Such information is generally required by Federal Internal Control Standards, which state that for an agency to run its operations, it must have reliable and timely communication and that information is needed throughout the agency to achieve its objectives.[1]

Unlike amenity fees, which the Park Service expects park units to review annually, Park Service officials stated they had no plans to periodically review entrance fees to determine if they should be increased.  GAO’s 2008 guide on federal user fees states that if federal user fees are not reviewed and adjusted regularly, federal agencies run the risk of undercharging or overcharging users.[2] Moreover, Park Service guidance directs the agency to ensure its fees are set at a reasonable level, but this guidance does not direct that these fees be periodically reviewed.[3] In a 2015 report, the Department of the Interior Inspector General recommended that the Park Service establish intervals for periodic reviews of its entrance fees to ensure that the fee schedule remains up to date.[4] Park Service officials stated they were hesitant to commit to such reviews until FLREA is reauthorized because they were unsure if they would continue to have the authority to continue charging entrance fees.[5] However, the Park Service has not required periodic reviews of entrance fees for the 11 years that FLREA has been in place. By not regularly reviewing its entrance fee schedule, the Park Service is missing an opportunity to better ensure that these fees are reasonable.      

In addition, the Park Service’s ability to further increase revenues from recreation fees is limited by certain factors, including legislation.  For example, FLREA directed the Secretary of the Interior to establish an interagency pass that covers entrance fees and certain amenity fees for all federal recreational lands. The price of the pass is $80 annually, as of November 2015, and covers national park units as well as recreational lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  However, FLREA limits these agencies’ ability to increase revenue from recreation fees.[6] For example, FLREA requires the Secretary of the Interior to offer a lifetime interagency pass for a one-time $10 price to senior citizens, defined as being over 62 years of age. While under FLREA the price of the annual interagency pass can be changed by the agencies that administer it, the law does not provide this flexibility for the $10 lifetime senior pass.   Because of the limitations in FLREA, the Park Service and the other agencies that administer the recreation fee program do not have the flexibility to periodically reassess and change the price of the lifetime senior pass. Providing this flexibility to these agencies would allow them to consider adjusting fees periodically, which is consistent with GAO’s guide on federal user fees.[7]



[1]GAO, Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government, GAO/AIMD-00-21.3.1 (Washington, D.C.: November 1999).

[2]GAO, Federal User Fees: A Design Guide, GAO-08-386SP (Washington, D.C.: May 29, 2008).

[3]Park Service guidance states that fees should not be collected in instances where the costs of collection exceed revenue from the fees.  National Park Service, Management Policies (2006).

[4]Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of the Interior, Review of National Park Service’s Recreation Fee Program, C-IN-NPS-0012-2013 (February 2015).

[5]FLREA is currently set to expire September 30, 2016.  16 U.S.C. § 6809 (2015).

[6]Of these agencies, the Park Service collects the majority of recreation fees.  In fiscal year 2011, the Park Service collected about two-thirds of the total recreation fees collected ($172.4 million of $260.6 million).  See Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture, Implementation of the Federal Lands Recreation Act: Triennial Report to Congress (May 2012).

Actions Needed

To increase the flexibility that the Park Service has to change entrance fees, GAO suggested in December 2015 that Congress take the following action:

  • Consider amending FLREA to give authority to the Park Service and the other four agencies that implement the recreation fee program—Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service—to adjust the price of a lifetime senior pass.

The price of the senior pass has been $10 since 1993, but a bill introduced in September 2015 would increase this price to a one-time amount matching the price of the annual interagency pass, which is $80, as of November 2015.[1] If this change occurred, it could generate about another $35 million in revenue annually, assuming that the same number of senior passes was sold as in fiscal year 2014, which was about 500,000.[2]

In addition, to help improve the management of recreation fees, GAO also recommended in December 2015 that the Secretary of the Interior direct the Director of the Park Service to take the following two actions: 

  • Revise the Park Service’s guidance on recreation fees so that the agency periodically reviews its entrance fees to determine whether the fees are reasonable.
     
  • Direct that park units provide information to headquarters on why they are choosing to not increase entrance fees or increase them by an amount less than the fee schedule.

If the Park Service were to take these two actions, it is possible that the agency would realize additional revenues from entrance fees to the extent that having park units periodically review entrance fees and provide additional information on entrance fee decisions led park units to conclude that they could raise their entrance fees.  Because the potential increase in revenues depends on a host of factors—including how much parks choose to increase fees and the impact these increased fees may have on visitation—GAO was unable to develop an estimate.
 


[1]National Park Service Centennial Act, H.R. 3556, § 602 114thCong. (2015).

[2]The amount of additional revenue could be lower if the amount of the price increase deters seniors from purchasing the pass. 

How GAO Conducted Its Work

The information contained in this analysis is based on findings from the product listed in the related GAO products section.  GAO analyzed budget data from fiscal years 2005 through 2014 on the Park Service’s overall funding and fee revenues.  GAO also reviewed laws and Park Service policies and compared this information with GAO’s design guide for federal user fees[1] and Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government.[2] In addition, GAO interviewed Park Service officials at the headquarters, regional, and park unit levels.
 


Agency Comments & GAO Contact

In commenting on the December 2015 report on which this analysis is based, Interior agreed with each of GAO’s recommendations, and Interior also noted that the Park Service is planning to address these recommendations. Specifically, in 2016, the Park Service is planning to revise its guidance on recreation fees to require periodic evaluation of the entrance fee pricing structure.  In addition, beginning in 2016, Interior indicated the Park Service will require park units to provide information on their decisions to not increase entrance fees.

GAO provided a draft of this report section to Interior for review and comment. Interior reviewed this report section and did not have any comments on it. 

For additional information about this area, contact Anne-Marie Fennell at (202) 512-3841 or fennella@gao.gov.

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