The federal government spends more than $33 for every one of the 24 daily visitors to the national park created to commemorate President Clinton’s birthplace, according to a scathing report released Tuesday that said Congress has created far more parks than the system can handle.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican and author of the report, said his colleagues are more interested in establishing new parks than in spending money on upkeep of existing ones, leaving some of the country’s gems in bad shape. The result, he said, is “all these parks that nobody wants to visit.”
He pointed to a $24 million backlog in work on trails at the Grand Canyon and the $2 million in tort claims filed one year from people who tripped on bad sidewalks at Independence National Park in Philadelphia.
“The question is, do we add more national parks or do we take care of the parks we have today?” said Mr. Coburn, the top waste-watcher in Congress. “We are adding so many parks that have no visitation. … Nobody wants to visit them. They’re basically an earmark for members of Congress.”
He said the Clinton Birthplace National Historic Site in Arkansas, which averages 24 visitors a day, is a particularly stunning example of a broken system because it was Mr. Clinton who signed legislation in 1998 to clamp down on frivolous new parks — only to see Congress violate that rule in 2009 to create the birthplace.
Other presidential birth sites also are sucking up taxpayers’ money. Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home in Illinois isn’t even part of the National Park Service, and the owners show no signs of selling, but the government still found a way to spend $72,000 in 2012 on the site.
The Park Service will review the report, said spokesman Jeffrey Olson. He said it is “a good discussion to have” with the Park Service approaching its 100th anniversary in 2016.
The debate over adding park sites versus maintaining existing ones has been continuing for years. The Park Service regularly battles some of lawmakers’ proposed sites, noting an $11.5 billion maintenance backlog.
Mr. Coburn said the incentives are wrong: Lawmakers get more political bang out of creating parks than they do by boosting funding for existing parks.
Full national parks, such as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, can be created only by an act of Congress. National monuments, national historic sites and the like can be designated by Congress, the president or the Interior Department.
While chiefly blaming Congress, Mr. Coburn said the Park Service is bloated with bureaucracy and often overpays when it tries to expand parks. He said Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming is trying to add 86 acres at a cost of $186,047 per acre. By comparison, the average value of farm and ranch land in Wyoming was $540 an acre in 2011.
Congress could decommission some of the lesser-used National Park sites and turn them over to states or public-private partnerships.
That was what happened in the case of Union Station just blocks from the Capitol. The Park Service took over the train station in 1976 and created a visitors center that never drew crowds. In 1981, the Park Service shuttered the visitors center and transferred the site to the Transportation Department. Union Station then underwent a $160 million refurbishment financed by Amtrak, the District government and private money. It since has become one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.
Mr. Coburn said an easier solution would be to place a moratorium on new park sites until the maintenance backlog is reduced.
His 208-page report takes a hard look at some of the park properties and how much use they are getting.
Mr. Coburn said more Americans were struck by lightning in 2012 than visited Aniakchak National Monument in Alaska, which had just 19 visitors that year. Indeed, Alaska accounted for three of the six parks with the highest cost per visitor in 2012, according to the Coburn report figures.
Even in urban areas, some park properties get little use. The Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia, a few blocks away from the Liberty Bell, had just 3,313 visitors in 2012.
The 1970s were particularly bad years for creating National Park sites. Of the 25 least-visited parks, nearly half came into being in that decade.
The Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River, created in 1978, had a budget of $193,000 in 2012, which worked out to more than $319 for each of the 604 official visitors. Another 1978 park, the Thomas Stone National Historic Site in Maryland, costs taxpayers $91 per visitor.