No walk in the park

No walk in the park

September 29th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

Today is National Public Lands Day.

What in the world is "National Public Lands Day" and why is it today?

It seems an outfit called the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) convinced federal lawmakers and bureaucrats that it was appropriate to annually celebrate the mass federal ownership of land by the government each September. To salute this particularly socialist aspect of America, the federal government waives the entrance fees to all 397 national parks in the United States.

When NEEF isn't busy conjuring up ways to celebrate government's role in owning and overseeing land that would likely be better preserved by private foundations or land trusts, they stop hugging trees just long enough to cash taxpayer-funded checks to their organization. It turns out that NEEF pulls in about $2 million a year in government grants, according to its IRS records.

The idea of a day of free admission to America's national parks may induce a case of the warm fuzzies at first blush, but the cold reality is that taxpayers who don't visit parks during National Public Lands Day will be left footing the bill for those who do. That's nothing new.

Taxpayers paid $2.9 billion this year to subsidize scores of unimpressive parks and trivial historic sites that have no business being managed by the National Park Service.

The biggest problem for taxpayers is the number of utterly insolvent parks in the Park Service's collection of landholdings. Only a small handful of national parks and historic sites produce enough in entrance fees, camping permits and concession revenues to be financially self-sufficient. The rest, plagued by poor visitorship, the inability to generate revenue and a lack of public interest are on the dole, swiping billions annually through a taxpayer-funded federal welfare program for parks and historic sites.

As a result, revenues from park visitors fund a measly nickel out of every dollar in the Park Service coffers, while federal tax dollars fund the rest.

The Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site just outside of Boston, for example, attracts 4,802 guests per year at a cost to taxpayers of $24 million, or $493 per person. Montana's Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site is a working cattle ranch that will saddle taxpayers with a $1.5 million bill this year despite drawing less than 20,000 visitors. Playwright Eugene O'Neill's former Northern California estate costs Americans $700,000 per year while attracting 11 visitors on a good day.

These failing parks and historic sites are plagued with one of two problems. Either the Park Service is providing visitors with a poor experience, or the sites themselves are not interesting, moving, beautiful or historically significant enough to draw sightseers. Whichever is the case, it is in the best interest of taxpayers, and the sites themselves, to allow private foundations or caretakers, or even state or local governments, to take them over.

Getting the federal government to stop propping up penniless parks would save federal taxpayers $2.9 billion a year- money that families could use to go on a vacation of their own, rather than subsidizing other people's fun.