National Parks bring private business $20 Billion in visitor spending, while the public pays all the expense. The Great American Outdoors Act won’t change this.
By Robert Simmons
Renting public land to some of the wealthiest corporations in the world for as little as $1.50 an acre per year is irrational…Oil companies are drilling on public land for the price of a cup of coffee.Jayni Foley Hein, Institute for Policy Integrity at NYU School of Law
Signs are up all over our National Parks: don’t feed the bears, don’t feed the birds – but animals cannot help but flock to where the food is. Regardless, the Federal Government has made feeding these animals illegal, and tasked the National Park Service (NPS) to enforce it.
Humans will also flock to where the food is, although we prefer our food in cash, as it maximizes our so-called liberty. Humans have long been congregating around a most excellent source of cash, which ironically, also happens to be our National Parks. Private businesses in and around our parks brought in “$20.2 Billion in visitor spending” and is “estimated to create $40.1 billion a year in economic output”. This created over 268,000 jobs in these “gateway regions” alone; all this, of course, because over 318 million of us like to visit our National Parks every year. As a business, boasts Forbes magazine, “it might be bigger than travel giants Hilton Worldwide (2018 annual revenue $8.906B) and Alaska Airlines (2018 annual revenue $8.264B) put together.” In reality, however, our National Parks currently operate at a $4.1 Billion dollar loss ($16 Billion if necessary neglected repairs are finally addressed). Let’s try to understand how this is so.
How Are National Parks Funded?
Our Federal tax dollars ($4.085 Billion of them) pay for the upkeep of America’s 423 National Parks. The National Park Service (NPS) estimates that nearly $12 Billion in maintenance repair is needed to upgrade the aging infrastructure (52% of which involves paving roads, plus restoring bridges and tunnels). In 2018, The NPS performed more than $671 million in repairs, but failed to make a dent in the overall total cost; the maintenance backlog has remained between $11 and $12 Billion since 2010 (the cost is actually $21.6 Billion, if forests and wildlife refuges are included). This points to our typical strategy when it comes to “debt”: pay the “interest only” and never put a dime toward any of our principles.
Who is Responsible for National Parks?
Ultimately, the American people are responsible for the parks; we pay Government, through our tax dollars, to manage it for us. They in turn provide park staffing equivalent to 18,688 full-time positions, costing $2.7 Billion in salaries; this covers the day-to-day operations within each park. The National Park Service is one of four agencies within our Government that also handles the conservation of America’s natural resources. Federal lands and waters are also overseen by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.
The Great American Outdoors Act: What Does it Do, and How is it Funded?
Our Government has made it a practice to lease federal lands and waters to private energy corporations. The going rate is as little as $1.50 an acre per year (you read that correctly). 25% of fossil fuel production and 40% of coal mining occurs on public land, and money from rent and royalties (upon successful extraction) will now be redirected into two funds, per the Great American Outdoors Act of 2020 (sponsored by former Coloradan Senator Cory Gardner).
The first fund, called The National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund, is designed to handle all Park maintenance backlog issues. It will receive $1.9 Billion a year over five years, 70% ($1.33 Billion) of which will go to Park restoration. It is important to note that this would only cover half the amount currently needed (even less when the five-year commitment ends, and another $3 Billion in repairs has cropped up). It is also important to note what private corporations got in this deal: leverage. Corporations get to remain on public land and extract oil and coal, and the people get a National Park endowment; We rape and we save.
The other fund is the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), an existing program which will now receive permanent financing, in the amount of $900 Million a year. The LWCF usually takes this money and purchases more federal land (in order to protect it); occasionally, it will place some recreational infrastructure on it in the process, like hiking and biking trails, for example. It appears the government will have a tougher time purchasing and protecting any new land through the LWCF, however, as new acquisitions going forward will need to be okayed by states or local municipalities prior to purchase (it also gives governors veto power over all new federal public land acquisitions, which did not make conservationists too happy).
Further, the bill dropped the amount allocated for land acquisition to $2.5 million, nowhere near the $23.6 million worth of land acquisition projects that were already scheduled to happen in Alaska, California, Idaho, and Montana. They have effectively been canceled. It is important to note what changed here as well: a fund traditionally mandated to preserve environmentally sensitive areas will now have as its goal the creation of recreational opportunities for private interests, with very little financial power to protect land outside of what it already has acquired.
Private business currently benefits from National Park visitation (to the tune of $20.2 Billion a year). The American people spend $4.1 Billion a year for this to happen and get a return of $0 on their investment. As usual, Americans are paying for all the infrastructure, so that private business can turn around and charge them to use it. We are, in fact, footing the entire $24.3 Billion bill ($20.2B + $4.1B) to use our own possession. This is the capitalist business model that has made Wealthy America great again and again.
Currently, private interests are looking to get management control of the parks themselves; we cannot let them do this (see private prisons, agribusiness subsidies, private healthcare costs, privatizing the postal service, or privatizing public education for further clarification). The vultures of privatization are circling the government because it is fat and weak and slow.
Government is the only weapon that We the People have at our disposal; it is an extension of all our collective will. Think of It like our fist, and right now Big Business is punching us in the face with our own fist, meanwhile asking us why we are punching ourselves in the face with our own fist, until some of us have begun to believe that others of us are punching them in the face with a big government fist. It is time we get better control of our own fist.
Government clearly states that We the People are supposed to be in charge of Government; it just didn’t stipulate exactly which people. The Government, by the way, is an empty building; people have to go inside and turn it into a Government. Whoever decides not to show up, there is always somebody else willing to step in; somebody motivated, either intrinsically or extrinsically, selfishly or selflessly. The problem appears to be that We the People, as a whole, have not been properly motivated.
Step 1: Grow a Spine
Our National Parks is the perfect first battleground for Americans to begin taking America back. We already own the land, staff the parks, and cover all the maintenance cost; who the hell are the owners if we are not the owners? All those visitors (us) are our customers. Whether we become landlords, and charge vendors either a flat rate rent, or a percentage of their earnings, or become managers, and take the entire thing over (retaining only the local employees), we will need a business plan that delivers a great product, at a great price, employs lots of people, pays them well, and gives all us “shareholders” a Return on Investment.
Step 2: Gotta Have Money to Make Money
The Third Option would first establish a National Public Bank, then loan the parks $24 Billion to not only repair everything ($11.6 Billion), but build lodges, restaurants, and other amenities in addition to the private businesses that stay on and pay rent to us.
By funding the entire cost of renovation through the National Bank, this $24 Billion expense just dropped to $1.375 Billion a year (the yearly cost of the $24 Billion loan in mortgage payments, at 4% interest). We will also still need $2.7 Billion to staff the park each year. Conveniently, the total cost would remain $4.1 Billion, except now we would have built a business, and every dollar we’d make going forward would help grow this business.
Step 3: Pay Ourselves Back (With Interest)
Currently at Yellowstone, it costs $35 per car or $20 an individual to get in the gate. There are 108 National Parks who charge to get in; another 300 are free. There are several ways to pay off this $4.1 Billion business expense each year, but if we decided to base it on visitors fees, it would take $12.81 an individual visitor (we get around 318 million of them a year), to cover expenses. If we preferred to charge more money at the bigger parks (in order to keep the smallest parks free of charge): the top twenty parks for attendance alone totaled 68 million visitors last year; charging $20 to get into them could already get us $1.36 Billion, exactly a third of the way to our target price.
The hope, of course, is to make going to National Parks an amazing experience for everyone, meanwhile retain control of environmental protection, provide employment, and completely cut out federal taxation to pay for any of it. Finally, when that National Public Bank loan gets paid back 30 years later, $41.25 Billion would have accumulated, equivalent to a $288 “shareholder dividend” for each of the 143 million taxpayers that contribute to government each year.
The Third Option is always about taking relevant information, and applying it in order to find the most efficient and effective economic solution possible, to satisfy people and planet. Look for National Parks under the Department of the Interior, in our Federal Budget proposal.