National Parks’ Illegal “Non-Profit” Network

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For Immediate Release: Monday, December 23, 2019
Contact: Jeff Ruch (510) 213-7028; Susan Sargent (202) 265-7337

Audit Finds Residential Centers Operate without Charter or Oversight

Washington, DC — National Parks have ignored laws and their own policies in subsidizing a network of “residential environmental learning centers,” according an official audit prompted by a complaint from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The 18 centers at major parks provide services, ranging from yoga classes to weddings, using park facilities for 600,000 patrons annually, that generate substantial revenue with no return to the taxpayer.

The Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General (IG) this week released its audit of residential environment learning center arrangements with host parks and found the RELCs –

  • Provided wide ranges of services, such as private conferences, chef-crafted meals, and cabin-rentals, that are neither educational nor have any relation to park programs;
  • Hold fundraisers, sell food, beverages and other merchandise contrary to rules; and
  • Have yet to be audited by any park and often operate under improper agreements, despite legal advice form Interior’s Office of Solicitor to the contrary.

“These illegal partnerships have been tolerated or encouraged by senior park managers for years without any consequence,” stated Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that one such park, Grand Teton, was led until recently by Deputy Director David Vela who now is running the National Park Service (NPS) through a temporary appointment. “It is unlikely that any of the responsible park managers, including Mr. Vela, will be held to account or even reprimanded.”

A major point of the PEER complaint was that, unlike RELCs, for-profit concessioners must competitively bid to sell these same goods and services, under prices and conditions that NPS must approve. In addition, private concessioners pay each park a substantial market-based franchise fee while the non-profit RELCs pay nothing.

“National parks provide substantial support for these centers in terms of staff time and facility usage, but taxpayers get nothing in return for these subsidies,” added Ruch, noting that although they are non-profits, their offerings, such as $18,000 “wedding packages,” appear very profitable for their operators. “Given the huge maintenance deficit facing our national parks, those entities that benefit from park facilities should be required to pay their fair share.”

Deputy Director Vela, on behalf of NPS, accepted all 12 of the audit’s recommendations but the IG considers most of these actions as still incomplete and has referred them to the Assistant Interior Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget to ensure their implementation.


Read the IG audit report

Look at the PEER complaint

Revisit questionable NPS partnership policies

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