Fee Creep In the Parks

Last week I told you about the new, $80 America the Beautiful pass the federal government will be selling beginning New Year's Day. It will gain you access to national parks, U.S. Forest Service lands, the vast Bureau of Land Management empire, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuges, and, phew, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation properties.
What I haven't been able to decipher just yet is, in response to this pass, whether we'll see some hike in daily, weekly or annual entrance fees to parks around the nation.
But would that really be surprising? I mean, this new pass effectively raises the ceiling for national park entrance fees, since the outgoing National Parks Pass cost $50 and the new ATB pass represents a whopping 60 percent increase.
The ATB pass also represents a 25 percent increase from the currently available $65 Golden Eagle Pass that gets you into all the same lands as the newly minted ATB pass.
(In fact, shrewd folks might want to go out the last week of the year to their nearest federal lands agency office and buy a Golden Eagle Pass for $65. That'd put off for at least a year spending that extra $15.)
Anyway, let me tell you about another case of fee creep in the national park system: If you want to reserve in advance a backcountry campsite in Grand Teton National Park, it will cost you $25 in 2007, up from, $15 this year.
So, if you wait until 2007 to buy an ATB pass, and then make an advance reservation for a backcountry trip to Grand Teton, the cost will be $105 before you set out down the trail. That's a 66.5 percent increase from current levels. In one year.

Now, Grand Teton routinely makes one-third of its backcountry sites available for advance reservation. The other two-thirds are held back for walk-up traffic, for which there is no reservation fee.
I'm told the higher fee for reserving a site stems from the paperwork one person must handle. (Ironically, that one person in Grand Teton currently is on furlough...as the park doesn't have enough money to cover her position.)
Apparently, those who typically seek advance reservations are not weekend warriors who simply want to head to one campsite, spend a night or two, and go home. No, apparently those who reserve in advance want to secure multiple campsites for an extended trip. I've done that a number of times in Yellowstone and Grand Teton when I've headed into the watery backcountry of Shoshone, Yellowstone and Jackson lakes. In those instances, you definitely want to know you have a site reserved.
And, truth be told, a $25 fee for reserving any number of sites isn't that terrible. But a 40 percent increase in one year?
And in these days of shrinking ranger forces, wouldn't you think park managers would want more people to reserve sites on-line through an automated system Grand Teton officials claim "simplifies and streamlines" the overall process rather than encouraging more and more people to descend on the visitor center staff with walk-in requests?

I'm afraid we're entering a phase of rampant fee creep at the national parks as individual parks struggle to make ends meet with inadequate funding from Washington. Why else would we see such large percentage increases in fees?


In case you were wondering, backcountry travel in Grand Teton actually was up this year over 2005 levels. During 2005 the park issued 4,156 backcountry permits, and this year the total jumped to 4,889. No word on how many of those involved advance reservations.


Stop whining...the parks need the money, and they're not gonna get it from DC with a vital war goin' on against global jihadists.... Besides, if they can fund a ridiculous "global warming" study in Great Smoky, just how hard up are they?
If Canada charges $77. for its national parks pass and the State of California charges $125 (per car) for a state park pass, an $80 yearly pass to the parks is not out of the reasonable range. An alternative pricing system used in the EU could be adopted. For their musuems, EU citizens pay about half of what museum ticket buyers from the U. S. and the rest of the world pay, presumably because they've already paid through taxes.
With Bush's lying illegitmate war, with all it's billons of dollars going to waste to help Cheney's favorite corporate buddies...there won't be enough money to help pay for the toilet paper needed for the National Parks...a essential that might be denied by DC to help fund Bush's phony war. Roger, stand on Morro Rock at Sequoia National Park and tell me what you can "honestly" tell me what you see. Damn right, heavy pollution! Get those cars out and fees!
Interesting points Kath!
Hey Snowbird...get your head out of your a$$ and talk to a family who lost loved ones on 9/11. We ARE in a global war with cretins who wish to see even liberals like you dead (probably even more so with your penchant to support an anything-goes lifestyle). Talk to a soldier or Marine who knows that as long as we kill 'em OVER THERE they will STAY OVER THERE (just keep bringin' 'em into the kill-box, in warrior lingo). We have achieved two major objectives in Iraq to-date: (1) Deposed Saddam and his torturing/murdering sons and freed 25 million people; and (2) Killed thousands upon thousands of terrorists/jihadists/al-Qaeda who would otherwise be spreading terror around the globe. Since lefty kumbaya-kiddies like you dont "get it" we have to teach ya...so stop reading the New York Times and listening to NPR and talk to those who are fighting for your freedom to act stupid and mouth off!
Gee, Stan, those are sure good arguments that you make. It looks like you aren't too busy to post your opinions. You must be taking a vacation from fighting for my freedom.
The more I think about this the more outraged I feel. I don't mind paying taxes; I just want them to be well spent, whether in the local school district, for the police department or on things that I value on a personal level - like the national parks and national wildlife refuges, wilderness, etc. But with all the wasteful spending of the last 6 years or so, it's hard not to be cynical about it all. Where do we start? With what congressional earmarks? With which bridge to nowhere? And now I've got to pay more to get onto land which I and 299,999,999 other Americans are part owners of?
In comments on another post, I pointed out that the price increase for the Golden Eagle Pass under this system only covers inflation from 1998 to 2006 - that is spending $65 on a Golden Eagle in 1998 is the same as spending $80 on that pass in $2006. I think, however, that there is a broader issue at stake of what role fees should play in support of public lands. Economically speaking, one can consider public lands as having both an "existence value" and a "recreation value." For example, because Yellowstone is such a special, unique, place - almost everyone in the United States benefits from the fact that this special, unique, place is protected in perpetuity. This is the "existence value" of Yellowstone, and it is appropriate that tax revenues from the "general fund" should go to support the existence values - such as ranger patrols to prevent poaching and illegal development. On the other hand, there are certain "recreation values" provided by Yellowstone that primarily go to users of the Park. These values are supported by things like maintenance of the great circle road, visitor's centers, ranger programs, etc. - and in my mind, it is only appropriate that the vast bulk of these costs should be supported by user fees - i.e. that those who benefit from these things should pay for them. Right now, at $25 for a week's admission to Yellowstone, and $80 for annual admission to every single National Park, National Forest, National Wildlife Refuge, and other federal lands - our user fees are, if anything, woefully inadequate. The fact that an annual pass to the California State Park System or an annual pass to Canada's federal lands both cost over $100 is proof positive that if anything, the $80 pass doesn't go far enough. Isn't it kind of sad that Americans willingly pay so much for one day's admission to Walt Disney World, but get so enraged about paying so little for annual admission to all the wonders of this country's federal lands?
Sabbattis, enjoyed your comments! I think one reason why most Americans bulk at paying higher park fees...is that we, John Q. Citizen, carry the weight and the back bone of this Nation in taxes, labor...and in toil of war! For this heavy burden, at least Uncle Sam can provide a reasonable and applicable fee for the use all major parks...and to provide the adquate funding to allow the National Parks to do it's job properly. Too bad Washington DC isn't listening..or care's enough about the "middle class" and the supreme sacrifices they make everyday to keep this great Nation afloat.
I agree to a point with Sabattis' comments. For sure, paying $80 to gain access to all federal lands is a bargain in today's economy. BUT...I don't think you can compare public lands fees to those charged by the Disney Worlds out there, which are commercial operations designed to make money. The public lands I don't think ever were intended to make money. Theoretically, we pay for their maintenance and upkeep through our taxes. The budget woes that have turned the land-management agencies into beggars have been perpetrated by ill-conceived congressional decisions (ie. earmarks and pork)and administrations that don't seem to believe in the concept of public lands other than for energy development and logging. I truly believe that if Washington wanted to fully fund the land-management agencies, it could. Too, this higher fee is IN ADDITION to other fees you'll have to pay to enjoy public lands. The ATB Pass might get you in the door, but there are fees for camping, in the case of Mount Rushmore for simply parking your car, and even some ranger programs I believe are adding fees. Then, too, there are previous fee demo lands in national forests. How will they be affected? Sabattis' suggestion that perhaps the annual pass be done away with is definitely intriguing, and it certainly would impact me. But....it no doubt would be more equitable across-the-board and even possibly generate more revenues for the land-management agencies than the current proposal.
Yes, the Parks are not set up to make money - and things like basic maintenance and protection are supposed to be paid from for tax dollars. Nevertheless, I strongly susepect that even if one tallies up admission fees, parking fees, camping fees, and program fees that at most Park, if not all the Parks, the user fees are not even allowing the Parks to *break even* with the costs that those users imposing upon the Parks....
This no doubt is an accurate statement. But here's an analogy: There's no fee at all to enter the Smithsonian Institution and its museums (although you will encounter some fees, such as for the Imax Theater at the Air and Space Museum). No doubt it's mighty expensive to operate and maintain these museums. Should entrance fees be enacted at them?
The Smithsonian has corporate sponsorship of some of its exhibits. If the choice were fees or "This trail brought to you by Coleman Camping Gear", I'd rather have the fees.
Tastes great or less filling? And, that's when anyone bothers to give us a choice at all. I think the "Land of the Free" means freedom to make superficial choices. If you think that's a drastic assessment, perhaps it is, (I think it's very close to the truth, especially if you see what's done to protesters in this day and age as well as ages past), but the choice between user fees and corporate sponsored trails is a sad choice that we probably have little control over. It's like a runaway train; wait that's the runaway Yellowstone Park Line. We don't have user fees in DC, though every park is run by the National Park Service here, even the most insignificant piece of land with grass on it and a statue of some dead war hero. On the other hand, I've been told that if I had a sign that said, "Enjoy Coca Cola" on one of those many lawns, this one happening to be Lafayette Park in front of the White House, no one would bother me - promoting private interest is okay in some parks. Yet, if I have a sign that says, "Stop War," an attitude that expresses what we're told makes this country free, I get chased around in circles around the statue of Andrew Jackson in the same park (you think I'm kidding? That's what happened to me, though that time it was the Secret Service and not the Park Police). I don't think the issue is fees. There are lots of issues that fees suggest, though. I think one that's coming out here is that there's no real control over what happens. It just does. That's what happens in a police state. And, why do I say something so outrageous? Not because I get chased around in circles around the pigeon shit all over Andrew Jackson's likeness, but rather because the issue of user fees shows us once again that the government basically sees management of parks and lands as a security issue. Its solutions suggest behavior modification. We say these are public lands; in truth we don't own them. So, for that, our trails might as well say, "Welcome to the penitentiary trail system, paid for by campaign contributions from Coleman Camping Gear." I guess that's why the snowmobile lobby exploits its cause so effectively. They exploit what in fact is wrong with the way the parks are managed, the ways that show themselves through the less than transparent processes that give us a "pass" to see "America the Beautiful." Who are they to restrict access, the lobby argues? Supposedly, their power rests on us, but it's a lot more complicated than that. It really rests on the Colemans who pretend to feud with "public" ownership (when really perhaps it just tells us which private interests have been cut out of the action - just as France being cut out of the Iraq action they once had so lucratively). And, they exploit it, these interests, for their own pernicious reasons, but they can because the reason for exploitation is there. I don't know what to do about user fees; I don't care. As I said elsewhere, I think the poor in the parks are the ones who work there and make money to live there, and I don't have a lot of sympathy for other middle class people like myself until we deal with other class issues. I do care about the larger issues in which user fees manifest themselves. I think we should turn our attention to them, or we are only going to keep futiley going after symptoms that have no effect on the disease itself. Jim
Hey Jim...that sure was a lot of liberal jibberish!
Hey Rex, don't insult me by calling me a liberal. I'm far worse than that; I'm an anarchist. Cheers, Jim
Hey Jim, Did you know that Edward Abbey was also anarchist and a damn good one at that. More power to you Jim! Skoal, Snowbird
Two people can sign their name to the new $80 pass and not have to be related to one another (unlike the Park Pass or Golden Eagle). So if you have a good friend who visits parks often, go in on the deal together, and share the pass. $40/each ain't a bad deal! Or, head over to a National Park and buy your $50 pass before Dec. 31st, thus putting off the price increase for a year.
The Smithsonians are something of a special case, since the Smithsonians owe their existence to a non-profit foundation that explicitly prohibited the charging of entrance fees. As such, the Smithsonian makes up for the lack of entrance fee with a lot of fundraising and corporate sponsorship. For example, around 73,000 people made "contributing member" donations of $70 each to the Smithsonian. Somewhere on the other of $170 million is raised from private sources each year by the Smithsonian, and as noted above, this often means corporate sponsorships of programs and exhibits. The Smithsonian also has an entity called "Smithsonian Business Ventures" that seeks ways to commercialize the Smithsonian through concessions, theatres, gifts, sponsored tours, etc. - which contribute another $17 million or so to the bottom line. By contrast, the largest non-profit association supporting the Parks, Eastern National, which operates bookstores at most East Coast NPS sites, contributes only around $1-2 million per year to the National Park service based on information I could find online.
Yes, on the Smithsonian...an institution I've lost most of my respect for...if you walk in the Natural History Museum and look at the rotunda, you see the name Kenneth Behring all over the place. Behring gave a lot of money to the Smithsonian. But, this guy, besides being vilified in Seattle for trying to move the Seahawks to California when he owned it, is known as one of the biggest game hunters in the world, a man so legendary, he is known to shoot at elephants from helicopters. Behring belongs to an exclusive sportsman's club that celebrates this kind of hunting. He is otherwise reviled. Yet, when he opens up his pocketbook for the Smithsonian, you see his name celebrated right up front for everyone to see. That's in part how they raise money so that the Smithsonian is free of user fees. I don't need to rehash what I've said though about this still being a symptom issue, but I did want to say that Sabattis is right.
The parks belong to the US people. They are mine - I should not need to pay anything more to visit what is mine. User fees only real purpose is to create a barrier to keep out the non rich. It is a means to create more country clubs and golf courses for the rich. Either way so called user fees are obscene and should be repugnant to all Americans.