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National Park Service: Revenues from Fees and Donations Increased, but Some Enhancements Are Needed to Continue This Trend

GAO-16-166 Published: Dec 15, 2015. Publicly Released: Jan 14, 2016.
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What GAO Found

The National Park Service's (Park Service) total funding did not keep pace with inflation for fiscal years 2005 through 2014, even as fees and donations increased. Total funding increased in nominal dollars from $2.7 billion to $3.1 billion (15 percent) during this period, but declined by 3 percent after adjusting for inflation. Annual appropriations, which comprised about 88 percent of total funding on average, declined 8 percent after adjusting for inflation. Fees, donations, and other funding sources, which accounted for the remainder, increased 39 percent after adjusting for inflation.

Revenues from fees and donations grew for fiscal years 2005 through 2014 to varying degrees. Specifically, revenues from recreation fees, which include entrance and amenity fees for facilities such as campsites, increased from about $148 million to $186 million (26 percent). Revenues from fees from concessions operations, which comprise the vast majority of commercial service fees, nearly tripled from almost $29 million to $85 million. Meanwhile, cash donations from philanthropic sources fluctuated, ranging from $19.5 million in fiscal year 2011 to $94.7 million in fiscal year 2014.

The Park Service has efforts under way to increase revenues from fees and donations, but certain factors limit these efforts. For recreation fees, the Park Service updated its fee schedule, and several park units increased entrance and amenity fees. However, the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) does not give the Park Service and other agencies that charge recreation fees the authority to adjust the price of a lifetime senior pass, which has been $10 since 1993. GAO's guide on user fees states that federal agencies should regularly review fees and make changes if warranted. Without the authority to modify the price of the senior pass, the Park Service is limited in its ability to increase revenue from this fee. In addition, Park Service guidance on recreation fees directs the agency to ensure its fees are set at a reasonable level, but does not call for periodic reviews of these fees, and the agency has no plans to do so. The agency also does not require park units to provide information on decisions to not change their fees or deviate from the fee schedule because decisions about raising fees are left to the park units. As a result, the Park Service is missing opportunities to ensure that its entrance fees are reasonable. To increase commercial service revenues, the Park Service increased minimum franchise fees that concessioners pay, and some park units have developed leasing programs. Several factors, such as limited competition for some concessions contracts, complicate efforts to increase these fees. For philanthropic donations, the Park Service has launched fundraising and public outreach campaigns in conjunction with its centennial anniversary in 2016 and has modified fundraising policies to increase donation opportunities. According to agency officials, several factors hamper the agency's ability to increase donations, such as projects that need funding are not always attractive to donors.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Park Service manages 409 park units that cover 84 million acres. Park Service funding is generally composed of annual appropriations along with revenues from recreation fees, commercial service fees, and philanthropic donations. GAO was asked to review the Park Service's collection of these fees and donations.

This report examines the Park Service's (1) overall funding trends for fiscal years 2005 through 2014; (2) trends in revenues from fees and donations; and (3) efforts to increase revenues and donations, and factors that affected these efforts. To conduct this work, GAO analyzed budget data for fiscal years 2005 through 2014 on the Park Service's overall funding and fee revenue and donations. GAO also reviewed laws, examined Park Service reports, and interviewed agency officials and stakeholders, such as nonprofit partners and concessioners.


Congress should consider amending FLREA so that the federal agencies that charge recreation fees can determine whether to adjust the price of a senior pass. GAO also recommends that the Department of the Interior direct the Park Service to revise its guidance to periodically review entrance fees and direct park units to provide information on their decisions to not increase fees. Interior concurred with the recommendations.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
To increase the flexibility that Park Service has to change entrance fees, Congress should 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.
Closed – Implemented
On December 16, 2016, Pub. L. No. 114-289, the National Park Service Centennial Act was signed into law. Section 102 of the law increased the cost of a senior pass. Under the law, there are two options for the cost of the senior pass: an annual senior pass that costs $20 and a lifetime senior pass that costs the same amount as the annual interagency national pass, which is the standard annual pass available to the public at a cost of $80, as of January 2017. Although the law did not give agencies authority to increase the cost of the senior pass, its passage did result in an increase in the cost of this pass and increased revenues from this recreation fee are likely.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Interior To help improve its management of recreation fees, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Park Service to revise its guidance on recreation fees so that the agency periodically reviews its entrance fees to determine whether the fees are reasonable.
Closed – Implemented
In August 2017, the Park Service updated chapter 3 of its Reference Manual 22A: Recreation Fee Collection (RM22A). This chapter now includes a section on reevaluating the entrance fee pricing structure, in which the agency indicates that every 3 years the recreational fee program will reevaluate the current entrance fee pricing structure to determine if updates are needed. In addition, the agency has updated its internal website with this schedule and the most current fee pricing information. Although the full RM22A is still undergoing some additional revisions, the agency is currently following the revised pricing structure and review schedule as laid out in chapter 3, according to agency officials, and, as such, GAO considers this recommendation closed.
Department of the Interior To help improve its management of recreation fees, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Park Service to 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.
Closed – Implemented
On March 21, 2016, the Deputy Director of Operations at the National Park Service issued a memorandum stating, among other things, that the goal is for all entrance fee parks to align with the standard pricing rates for their entrance fee group by 2017 if such a move is supported by civic engagement. In addition, if there is a compelling reason for a park to move to a different entrance fee group, the Regional Director may approve the change in consultation with the headquarters fee office, and the group change should take place prior to the park beginning its civic engagement. Any change to a different price group must be documented on the fee rate change request form. Further, if there is significant public controversy, a park may choose not to implement new fees, may phase in the new rates over 2 years, or may delay and conduct civic engagement again at a later date. Finally, entrance fee parks that are not in line with the pricing model and do not intend to increase fees must document the reason(s) why on the fee rate change request form. This last requirement is consistent with our recommendation and, as such, GAO considers this recommendation closed.

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