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California Can Keep Parks Open with User Fees

Adam Summers
September 1, 2009, 12:39pm

Budget cuts have hit numerous functions of the California government recently, and state parks are no exception. Struggling with $14.2 million in cuts this year, officials have responded by threatening to close about 100 parks. A final list of the parks to be closed is expected shortly after Labor Day.

About two weeks ago, the California Department of Parks and Recreation (California State Parks) increased fees at parks around the state in an effort to stave off some park closures, although it acknowledged that the higher fees were still well below the levels necessary to make the parks self-sufficient. In fact, only 13 of the 279 state parks are self-sustaining.

In my latest column posted on Reason.org, I argue that not only could the parks be kept open by setting fees at self-sustaining, "market" rates, but also that user fees are fairer than devoting money from the state's General Fund, and that user fees can improve park management efficiency and accountability as well. Contracting with private and non-profit groups for management of parks can additionally help to drive down operations costs. The following is an excerpt of the article.

In recent years, at all levels of government, user fees have provided an attractive alternative to general appropriations funding. User fees provide a fairer funding source since they ensure that those who actually use government services are primarily responsible for paying for those services, reducing tax dollars and giving people more choices. 

User fees also offer practical benefits such as increased park management flexibility—allowing park managers to adjust to economic conditions or changes in park visitors’ recreational preferences—and greater financial accountability. States such as Vermont, New Hampshire and Texas have realized significant park services cost savings through user fees.

Opening up park management and maintenance services to a competitive bidding process, and turning these operations over to private-sector or non-profit groups, could further reduce costs and help to make the parks self-sufficient while addressing maintenance backlogs...

If user fees go up, some will say that the state is pricing out the poor.  But there are ways to accommodate all income groups. The demand for park services is not constant year-round, or even throughout the week. Parks that use market pricing would have an incentive to reduce fees during times of low demand and increase fees during times of high demand. Thus, anyone who wanted to save money on recreation fees could do so by visiting parks during off-peak days or seasons.

If that’s not enough, the state could set aside an allotment of passes each day to distribute on a first-come, first-served basis. This method would allow anyone willing to get in line early for tickets to pay with their time instead of their dollars.

California doesn’t “have” to close its parks. By increasing user fees to make state parks self-sustaining and contracting with private-sector or non-profit groups to manage and maintain the parks, California can prevent the threatened park closures.  Leveraging volunteer assistance and seeking out tasteful corporate sponsorships to generate additional revenues should also be part of the solution.

As the experiences of other state park systems show, the benefits of recreational user fees and park self-sufficiency are not merely theoretical. A market-based approach to the parks would ensure the future of the park system and offer greater preservation of the state’s natural wonders.

Read the full column here.

Other resources:

» My previous Reason policy study on national parks and user fees: Funding the National Park System: Improving Services and Accountability with User Fees (Full Study | Policy Summary)

» Reason's California-related research and commentary


Adam Summers is Senior Policy Analyst


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