Vehicle Specialty Park License Plate Programs

One potential earned income source for parks that have a high profile in their state is dedicated revenues from the sale of vehicle specialty license plates. These specialty plates can be issued with the park's name and icon on them. Purchasers order these specialty plates through the department of motor vehicles knowing that a portion of their license plate fees will go toward assisting the park as a tax deductible donation. Purchasers are able to proudly display their support for and help recognize the park everywhere they go with their vehicle.

Setting up a vehicle specialty license plate program for a park is undertaken by a primary park friend organization following the process requirements in their state. The program is usually administered through the state's department of motor vehicles. Most states charge $30 to $40 extra per plate, with a similar annual renewal fee. Park friends group receive from $17 to $30 for each plate sold and renewed -- the average return per plate is $20 per year.

Net proceeds from the sale of these plates go to the park friends organization as a revenue source for a variety of park projects that range from resource protection and capital improvements to education and interpretation.

The initial offering of a specialty license plate is an opportunity for an on-line auction to raise additional funds while building high visibility and market awareness. On-line auction management services are available to help nonprofits plan and manage their auctions. Washington's National Park Fund held a two week on-line auction in November, 2005 for the fund's first 25 specialty license plates. Due to the overwhelmingly positive response, the auction was extended an additional week. With opening bids at $200 per plate, organizers' expectations were exceeded after some plates went for more than $1,000.

Parks that currently benefit from a specialty license plate include Blue Ridge Parkway, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, Mount Rainer National Park, North Cascades National Park, Olympic National Park, and Crater Lake National Park.

These programs involve an upfront investment of both time and money by the park friends groups to gather petition signatures to establish the specialty park license plate, ensuring that the plate is approved, any fees for the production of the plates, and promotion of the plate. The investment can be more than justified for certain parks because the program can generate a steady annual revenue stream. Annual revenue generated from these specialty park license plate program range from $48,000 at Yellowstone National Park to $1 million at Yosemite National Park.

Due to privacy laws, many states prohibit their DMVs from releasing the names and addresses of license plate purchasers. In other states, this is not an issue. Releasing names of those who purchase specialty license plates to the park partners should be considered for the legislation creating the specialty plate or park partners can work with their Department of Licensing (DOL) or Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Park friends organizations such as The Glacier Fund receive monthly lists of the names of motorists who have purchased their specialty license plate. These motorists are sent thank you letters, periodic updates on where the contribution part of their fee money is being spent, and in the future, are solicited for donations. If names can not be released through the DOL or DMV, the park partner in its marketing efforts can advertise that tax deductible receipts are available for plate purchases through their website.

When deciding about establishing a license plate program, a friends group and/or park should consider the following:

    Is their park a strong icon in their state
    Does their state have a vehicle specialty license plate program
    Can they foster support in the state legislature
    Their willingness and capability of getting the required number of plate applications within the time period allowed, or their ability to fund the production process
    The time, energy and resources needed to develop a vehicle specialty license plate program
    How the program and revenues will be administered
    How the sales and renewal of the plates will be marketed
    The number of existing competing specialty license plates in the market
    The size of their constituency and the number of state residents that annually register for license plates to support such a program
    The realistic estimation of near and long term annual net proceeds the program can generate

For information on specific vehicle specialty park license plate programs, click one of the links below.