California Parks Need User Fees

Only 13 of the 279 parks and beaches are financially self-supporting

Has the budget crisis in California reached the point where state officials “have” to close state parks? Officials warn that budget cuts to the tune of $14.2 million could lead to the closure of approximately 100 of California’s state parks for up to two years. The final decision about which parks are to be closed is expected shortly after Labor Day.

Closing these parks isn’t necessary. Increasing park user fees to reflect the actual operating costs, as well as the rising demand, could allow the state parks to remain open.

California has recently imposed some minor park fee increases, yet they are still well below the amount needed-in the absence of additional reforms-to make the parks self-sustaining. Only 13 of the 279 parks and beaches in the California State Park System are financially self-sustaining.

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.

Some have voiced concerns that increasing fees might unfairly price the poor out of the state parks experience altogether. Beginning August 17, state parks across the state increased day-use and camping fees in order to partially address funding holes left by budget cuts. Those fee increases are expected to raise an additional $200,000 in revenue this year, and a total of $5 million over three years. But, according to a California State Parks press release, “It should be noted that these increases do not raise park revenues to the level of self-sufficiency for the system. Doing that would require steep increases that would price people out of their public park system.”

But how do officials know that self-sustaining park fees would price people out of the park system? It is not as though the state has ever tried to find market prices for park services. In fact, prior to the recent fee hikes, it hadn’t increased fees since 2004. Some parks do not charge day-use fees at all.

Numerous news reports indicate that demand for state parks remains high despite the recent fee increases. The state park system “is currently packed with the highest visitation rates ever recorded,” according to state parks director Ruth Coleman, “because with the economy in the tank, people can’t afford to go anyplace else.”

“Reservations are through the ceiling,” added Jerry Emory, a spokesman for the California State Parks Foundation. “It’s a very viable economic alternative for friends and families to get out and enjoy some quality time.”

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.

Adam Summers is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation.