The National Park Service Is Turning 100—How Are Its Finances?

NPS_centennial_logoThe National Park Service is celebrating its centennial on August 25, 2016.  For 100 years, the Park Service has helped the public enjoy its parks and worked to protect its resources. It currently manages 413 parks covering 84 million acres. That number keeps growing—the Service established one of its most recent parks, Stonewall National Monument in New York City, on June 24, 2016, to commemorate LGBT rights. [8/25/16: This post was edited to clarify when Stonewall National Monument was added.]

So, on the occasion of its 100th birthday (and considering that it hosts more than 275 million visitors a year): how is the Park Service doing financially?

Glacier National Park, Montana | Source: National Park Service, Jacob W. Frank
Making ends meet

The Park Service’s funds come from a combination of annual appropriations, entrance and camping fees, fees from vendors, and donations. But the mix of sources has been changing, with more of the money coming from fees and donations.

Figure 1: Proportion of the National Park Service’s Total Funding Comprised of Fees, Donations, and Other Funding Sources, Fiscal Year 2005 through Fiscal Year 2014(Excerpted from GAO-16-166)

Regardless of the source, funding hasn’t kept up with the times—the Service’s budget decreased by 3% between fiscal years 2005-2014 (after adjusting for inflation).

Paying more to play

To help close the funding gap, 111 parks increased their entrance and camping fees in 2014 and 2015. But there are obstacles to increasing park fees further. For example, the Park Service can’t charge entrance fees at parks that are in the District of Columbia. And, under current law, it can’t raise the price of a lifetime park pass for seniors, which has been $10 since 1993.

Instead, the Park Service has increased the fees that vendors pay to operate commercial services in the parks (e.g., hotels and restaurants). Revenue from these fees tripled to $85 million between 2005 and 2014. It may be hard to squeeze out more money—there is limited competition among companies for these contracts in some locations because they attract few visitors or have short tourist seasons.

To make up for the shortfall in their budget, the Park Service has launched a fundraising campaign around its centennial. Together with the National Park Foundation, it created a campaign to raise $250 million by 2018 to support 100 key projects. In addition, it is partnering with the Foundation on its “Find Your Park” campaign to encourage people to visit national parks.

Figure 7: “Find Your Park” Campaign Materials(Excerpted from GAO-16-166)

But, while the Park Service can usually raise funds for large construction projects (such as new visitor centers), it struggles to attract donors to projects like maintaining sewer systems at the parks.

Check out our report for more information on the Park Service’s fees, agreements, and fundraising efforts.

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Anne-Marie Fennell at
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact
Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , ,

Human Trafficking in the United States

Figure 5: “Look Beneath the Surface” Public Awareness Campaign PosterHuman trafficking— using force, fraud or coercion to exploit a person for the purposes of commercial sex or to work against their will—happens in the United States. But it’s not always easy to recognize the victims or understand the scope of the problem.

We recently examined some of the challenges the federal government faces in combating human trafficking—and here’s what we found.

An underreported crime with many faces

Figure 3: Office for Victims of Crime “The Faces of Human Trafficking” Public Awareness Campaign PosterThe victims of human trafficking are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and sexuality, and include

  • women, men, and transgender individuals;
  • adults and children; and
  • citizens and foreign nationals.

Victims are often already vulnerable, such as missing or runaway youth or someone with a drug addiction.

And the perpetrators can be almost anyone: family members, intimate partners, acquaintances, or strangers. They may act alone or within a criminal network. Traffickers may lure victims with false promises—such as offering a seemingly legitimate job—and force victims to remain in the situation with threats, abuse, or by withholding identification and immigration documents.

But, given the clandestine nature of trafficking, nobody really knows how prevalent it is. While federal efforts are underway to collect data, most of what is known is from information reported to law enforcement or hotlines—and these crimes are likely underreported.

Building cases against human traffickers

Even when trafficking is spotted and reported, law enforcement may not be able to build a case. It is difficult to distinguish human trafficking from legal activities, such as child care or restaurant workers, or from other crimes (such as prostitution). Victims may also distrust law enforcement and be unwilling to cooperate, fearing retaliation from the trafficker or not seeing themselves as victims. In fact, when U.S. Attorney’s Offices have had to decline human trafficking cases, the main reason was insufficient evidence.

Awareness about human trafficking can help fight it. So, some groups are taking steps to raise public awareness of the problem. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, is running its “Blue Campaign” to provide information to the public and training to law enforcement.

Figure 4: Blue Campaign Tear Cards for Potential Victims and Vulnerable Populations

(Excerpted from GAO-16-555)

Collaborating to stop traffickers in their tracks

Federal agencies, state and local law enforcement, and non-governmental organizations have taken a collaborative approach to combating human trafficking in the United States. Federal agencies such as the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, Labor, and State play a key role in investigating and prosecuting offenders, training officials, and providing public awareness campaigns. At the local level, agencies and organizations help meet victims’ short- and long-term needs, such as legal and immigration services, employment and education assistance, food and clothing, and medical and child care.

To see law enforcement data on human trafficking investigations, arrests, and convictions, as well as details on the 42 federal grant programs that combat trafficking or assist victims, check out our full report.

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Opportunity Knocks, 36,000 Feet in the Air

Photo: Wright brothers' plane. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-W86-35.On December 17th, 1903, two brothers took to the skies. Orville and Wilbur Wright’s 12-second inaugural flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina launched a revolution that would affect everything from war to commerce to vacations.

For National Aviation Day—established by FDR and celebrated on Orville Wright’s birthday—we look at the vehicles of air travel and the people who collaborate and contribute to the dream of flight.

It started with just two people on the dunes but now, over 100 years later, will there be enough people to build and maintain aircrafts and fly them?

From sketch to sky

The airplanes of today are very different from the Wright Flyer of 1903. The Wright Brothers functioned as the primary designers, builders, and pilots of their crafts, but modern aircrafts require the skills of a variety of people.

Figure 1: Examples of Tasks Performed by Selected Aviation Professionals(Excerpted from GAO-14-237)

But there’s concern within the aviation industry that there won’t be enough of these people working in the industry in the future. While some data suggest that the number of people receiving training related to aviation is increasing, it’s unclear how many of these people will ultimately enter the aviation industry. Aviation professionals require knowledge of (among other things) civil, electrical, chemical, and aerospace engineering—skills that are in high demand in many other fields.

Figure 3: Completions in Aerospace-Engineering-Related Fields by Level of Degree, 2001–2012(Excerpted from GAO-14-237)

A captain for every ship?

The aviation industry is also worried about having enough pilots in the future, based on:

  • the number of pilots set to retire,
  • fewer pilots exiting the military, and
  • new rules that require more flight hours to become a first officer for an airline.

Over the next decade, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a need for roughly 1,900 to 4,500 pilots per year. To help address potential vacancies, airlines could:

  • increase recruiting efforts,
  • improve working conditions,
  • offer bonuses to new employees,
  • improve wages and fringe benefits, and
  • hire contractors.

But the airline industry may not be in a position to pursue these options.  Recessions, bankruptcies, and mergers have curtailed its growth. Moreover, the future of flight includes commercial space activities, drone operations, and other emerging technologies, which could compete for the same workforce needed by traditional aviation. In order to keep the spirit of Orville and Wilbur Wright alive, and their invention aloft, the industry needs to entice a new generation to take to the skies.

To learn more about the people who make flying possible, read our reports on the current and future availability of aviation professionals and airline pilots.

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

For World Humanitarian Day, Examining Federal Efforts in Syria

thumbnail international affairsFriday, August 19 is World Humanitarian Day, designed to increase the public’s awareness about humanitarian assistance and honor humanitarian personnel (including those who lost their lives in the cause of duty).

In anticipation of tomorrow’s World Humanitarian Day, the WatchBlog looks at federal efforts to support humanitarian assistance for people affected by the conflict in Syria.

More than 13.5 million people in need Continue reading

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Avoiding a Washed-Up Flood Insurance Program

housing thumbnailThe floods devastating Louisiana will cause millions, if not billions, of dollars’ worth of damage. Homeowners who opted to purchase flood insurance coverage for their property may be able to rely on the National Flood Insurance Program for help. Today the WatchBlog looks at the nation’s flood insurance program and what might be needed to to keep it afloat. Continue reading

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Is Your Project’s Technology Up to the Job? Our New Draft Tech Readiness Assessment Guide Can Help Answer That

Cover of Technology Readinexs Assessment GuideTechnology can help solve some of the thorniest problems. But immature tech can create more problems than it solves.

NASA, the Department of Defense, and others originally conceived of the idea of “technology readiness assessments” to determine technology maturity—whether the tech for a project has been around long enough to have outgrown any initial problems.

To help practitioners assess their tech, we released a draft technology readiness assessment guide. It outlines 7 best practices for developing and producing reliable, high-quality assessments.

We developed this guide with experts from government agencies, private industry, nonprofit groups, and academia. We are also seeking comments on the guide over the next year. Continue reading

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , ,

What Do Quagga Mussels, Pythons, and Hydrilla Have in Common?   

lionfish hunter with speared lionfishThey’re all aquatic invasive species—and federal agencies are trying to do something about them. When nonnative plants, animals, and microorganisms live in new aquatic habitats, they can damage ecosystems and threaten commercial, agricultural, and recreational activities. Today’s WatchBlog explores what federal agencies are doing to address invasive species in U.S. waters. Continue reading

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

GAO for Your Reading Pleasure

GAO logoOur reports make for great reads, but sometimes summer calls for lighter fare. For National Book Lovers Day, read about how our real-life work shows up in best sellers and lesser known books alike.

Best sellers Continue reading

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , ,

Working toward Implementing the DATA Act

information technologyFederal agencies spend more than $3.7 trillion a year. But it’s not always easy to get reliable, useful, and consistent information about this spending—information that can help improve oversight, decision making, and transparency.

So, Congress passed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 to help more directly link spending data to program information and results. To do this, agencies will have to report standardized data. Legislators, government officials, and the public will then have online access to comparable financial information across agencies.

But federal agencies are having a hard time pulling together their plans for how they will Continue reading

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

The Costs and Benefits of Federal Telework (podcast)

GAO Podcast IconIt used to be that if you weren’t in the office, you couldn’t get work done. Now, at least 1 million federal employees are eligible to telework.

But what are the costs and benefits to federal agencies of this flexible workforce?

A team led by Yvonne Jones, a director in our Strategic Issues team, recently set out to answer that question, combing through reports of federal telework costs and benefits at 6 agencies. Hear Yvonne discuss what her team found:

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,