Washington, DC -- Yellowstone National Park has been illegally using lease funds from telecommunications companies to pay staff salaries and other expenses, according to internal records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Over the last several years, the National Park Service (NPS) issued six rights-of-way for cell phone towers in Yellowstone National Park. Two are issued to Union Telephone Company of Wyoming. Four were issued to interests now owned by Western Wireless Corporation. The annual fee from these two companies covers both the cost of administering the right-of-way and the rental for the use of federal land. The former funds are allowed to remain within the park to defray their costs. However, funds derived from the rental of land are to be deposited with the U.S. Treasury, as miscellaneous receipts.
Yellowstone National Park collects land rental fees of $500 per month for each of the six rights-of-way, for a total of $36,000 each year. Yellowstone has failed to deposit these funds in the U.S. Treasury in violation of law and Office of Management and Budget Circular A-25 that states "Unless a statute provides otherwise, user charge collections will be credited to the general fund of the Treasury as miscellaneous receipts, as required by 31 U.S.C. 3302." Instead, park officials have used the monies derived from leasing parkland to pay for employee salaries and other park expenses.
"The retention of rental fees from rights-of-way in park operating budgets is not just improper, it creates a positive incentive for a park manager to say ‘yes' to a prospective right-of-way applicant," stated PEER Board Member Frank Buono, a former long-time NPS manager. "Imagine if parks such as Lake Mead or Glen Canyon could keep revenues in their budget derived from royalties on mineral leases. One would reasonably expect more mineral leases. For this reason, funds derived from the sale or lease of Federal lands and resources must not be retained. There are already enough pressures influencing a manager's decisions. We do not need to add the temptation of un-appropriated cash."
A related impropriety involves the NPS obtaining in-kind services from the lessee, and then reducing the amount of the rental due. At Yellowstone, the NPS received 70 free cell phones from MetaCom and 5,000 free minutes per month.
"No matter how strapped the park budget may be, there is no excuse for Yellowstone's conduct," added Buono, noting that one cell tower was illegally sited overlooking the Old Faithful Historic District, without required public notice and in violation of its permit conditions. "The National Park Service is not entitled to sell our natural birthright for a few shekels."