- - Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The National Park Service is waiving entrance fees to America’s national parks and historic sites during National Parks Week. The freebies continue until April 27, but taxpayers aren’t getting a bargain, considering that the swollen agency spends $2.6 billion a year.

President Obama wants to spend still more money on parks, asking Congress to approve a scheme to spend an additional $1.2 billion over the next three years. The cash would be earmarked to celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial anniversary in 2016. It would fund, among other projects, an expensive youth work program and provide more muscle for the federales to wrestle land from individual property owners.

The National Park Service runs so deeply in the red because it’s too big. The agency runs 401 parks and historic sites, 23 trails and 58 rivers. For every majestic natural wonder and historic treasure, there’s a sparsely visited Park Service site of little value or significance. Many, if not most, of the Park Service’s nearly 500 properties might be better served in state, local or private hands.

Few national parks are financially self-sufficient. The rest are on the dole, requiring taxpayers to subsidize a failure to attract visitors, revenue and interest. Fees paid by park visitors fund only a nickel of every dollar devoured by the Park Service. Taxpayers fund the rest.

Playwright Eugene O’Neill’s hillside home in the San Francisco Bay is now a National Historic Site. It costs federal taxpayers $687,000 per year to keep open, though visitors trickle through at an average of just seven a day. That’s $270 for each and every visitor. In contrast, the Columbus, Miss., home of O’Neill’s contemporary, Tennessee Williams, was restored by private donors and is open to visitors at no cost to taxpayers.

Fewer than 11,000 persons visit the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in New Mexico every year, but it consumes nearly $1 million in tax dollars annually. An equally impressive fossil site in Gray, Tenn., draws nearly eight times more visitors and is funded primarily through corporate gifts and a few state grants.

Last year, Montana’s Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site attracted only 18,439 people, but taxpayers paid $1.5 million to keep it open. The cost of keeping the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River in Texas works out to $241 per visitor. The Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial near Oakland is an even bigger financial draw, requiring a $329 taxpayer subsidy per visitor. The federally managed site honoring the Wild West-era town of Nicodemus, Kan., draws so few visitors that the taxpayers are out $192 per visitor.

While National Park Service leaders want national park visitors to think they’re getting something for free this week, the gesture conceals an expensive truth. The National Parks are a wonderful treasure, all but unique to America, but the Park Service sometimes wastes money and mismanages many properties. Too much of a good thing can be too much.

Congress could commemorate National Parks Week by empowering private foundations and land trusts — or even state and local governments — to own and operate hundreds of the Park Service’s less visited, less significant and financially failing sites. This would free resources to protect the most worthwhile historic sites and ensure that neglected properties get the care and attention they deserve.