Entrance fees for forests escaping the Park Service Charges are held crucial in crunch

April 13, 1993|By Arizona Republic

WASHINGTON -- The National Park Service, in dire need of funds to maintain increasingly crowded national parks, is losing out on $105 million a year by not aggressively collecting fees from park visitors, a report says.

The Park Service has allowed admission booths at many parks to go unstaffed, and failed to establish collection programs at 63 parks where it would be cost-effective to do so, the Interior Department inspector general said in an internal audit.

"As a result, the Park Service lost the opportunity to collect about $105 million in entrance fees during fiscal year 1991," said the audit, obtained by the Arizona Republic yesterday under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Part of the problem is that understaffed parks are not permitted to use volunteers to accept tourists' money, according to a congressional aide.

"You ride around with the park superintendent and you go past the fee booth and it's unstaffed, and they say they can't put volunteers in there," said Steve Richardson, an aide to Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla.

Said Park Service spokesman Duncan Morrow: "Under existing law, we have to have a federal employee if it's going to be a person handling the government's money."

The audit said Arizona's Glen Canyon National Recreation Area missed out on $4.2 million in potential 1991 entrance fee revenues because it has no collection program.

In Washington State, Olympic National Park lost out on hundreds of thousands of dollars by only collecting from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day Weekend, even though 46 percent of the visits came outside that period, the audit said.

Park fees range from $1 to $4 for walk-ins, to $3 to $10 for cars.

The biggest revenues come from the "crown jewel" parks such as the Grand Canyon, which would begin charging $11 for motorists and $5 for hikers next year under a budget proposal submitted to Congress last week by President Clinton. The park, which currently charges fees of $10 and $4, collected $7.3 million at entrance stations in the 1991 fiscal year.

There are no fees at such historic sites as Independence Hall and the Statue of Liberty.

The Park Service needs all the revenues it can get: An inspector general's report last year concluded that the service had a $1.8 ++ billion backlog of maintenance projects, and that many park roads and trails were not being kept up.

In addition to the lost $105 million, another $123 million might have been raised had the Park Service obtained congressional permission to lift fee restrictions at certain parks and begun charging for special uses such as back country camping, hunting and fishing, the audit said.

The Park Service said in reply: "We agree with the report's general premise that given adequate funding, we could substantially increase entrance fee revenue."

However, the Park Service said a "realistic" figure for new revenue was $47.7 million.

The audit said parks may lack incentive to collect fees because the money goes into a large Park Service fund, instead of being retained by the park that collected it.

"Certainly, the inspector general is right that if park managers felt they had more incentive to collect the money -- if they thought the park would directly benefit -- they probably would work harder at collecting the money," Mr. Morrow said.

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