The learning center at Olympic National Park was offering $20,000 weekend wedding packages.

The learning center at Olympic National Park was offering $20,000 weekend wedding packages. Flickr user Doug Kerr

Organizations Are Improperly Offering Yoga Classes and $20K Weddings in National Parks

"Learning centers" should reimburse the National Park Service for federal funds they received, auditor says. 

Non-profit organizations are improperly offering wedding, yoga and rental services at national parks, according to a recent audit, and bilking taxpayers in the process. 

The National Park Service partners with nonprofits to run Residential Environmental Learning Centers (RELCs) on federal property to offer visitors educational services. The parks provide government resources such as buildings, staff and maintenance in exchange for “engaging environmental experiences for visitors and supporting the interpretive and education mission of the NPS,” according to the Interior Department’s inspector general. 

While the agreements are meant to be limited in scope, many of the organizations stepped outside of those restrictions to offer high-dollar events and other activities. NatureBridge, the learning center at Olympic National Park, for example, offered weekend wedding packages with a $20,000 price tag. Other learning centers offered art and yoga programs that cost up to $365 per person. The organizations are prohibited from holding events from which they benefit on park lands, but many held fundraisers in government buildings. 

Services and activities such as fundraising, lodging, cooking classes and conference space rental should be authorized under other types of partnerships or competitively bid concessionaire contracts, the IG said. NPS also frequently used improper legal vehicles to set up the learning centers. Five centers, for example, used agreements that prohibited the agency from offering financial assistance to the partner while providing such assistance anyway. 

If the organizations receive revenue from fees, then they are supposed to reimburse NPS for any cash awards the agency provided. In several cases, however, the IG found the nonprofits failed to do so. The RELC at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, for example, took in nearly $3 million over five years but never paid back the $1.4 million it received from NPS. Overall, the IG questioned $3.7 million in payments doled out by the Park Service to various learning centers. 

“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," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "Given the huge maintenance deficit facing our national parks, those entities that benefit from park facilities should be required to pay their fair share.”

The IG issued 12 recommendations, including to create a single policy that explains in detail what is expected from environmental learning centers. NPS should conduct audits of the centers’ revenue streams and correct discrepancies in unpaid reimbursements, the watchdog said. NPS agreed to implement all of the proposed changes.