Entrance Fee Hikes: Time to Say No?

Like a slow trickle of water pounding on your forehead, the pace of entrance fee hikes throughout the national park system is growing increasingly painful.
Passart2_copy Of course, many reached for the aspirin bottle back in December when the Interior Department broke the news that the beloved $50 National Parks Pass was being supplanted by the $80 America the Beautiful, National Parks and Federal Lands Recreation Pass.
Since that piece of plastic was forced upon us, there's been a steady stream of press clippings announcing either done deals on entrance fee hikes or detailing proposed fee hikes. And, surprisingly, there have been a handful of editorials opposing the increases! For instance, the Visalia Times-Delta had this to say about a planned hike from $20 to $25 for daily entry to Sequoia/Kings Canyon national parks:
An admission price of $25 per car is close to shutting out the poorer families of our area, especially in these times. And if the cost of viewing these natural wonders in our parks deters even a single family from enjoying them, that is counterproductive to what the park service's mission should be.
The Miami New Times was even more direct in its opposition to a proposed doubling of the $10 fee for driving into Everglades, saying that in the face of declining visitation the Park Service seems intent on making "it harder for people to visit..."

Of course, way back in January a congressman, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, called for a halt to the fee increase specifically planned for Crater Lake National Park and for those in general across the park system.
“It doesn’t make sense to increase park fees while national parks are struggling to attract visitors,” DeFazio said at the time. “I am concerned that the increase in fees at Crater Lake will discourage regular visits by Oregon families."
As for the rest of the national park system, the congressman believes funding solutions need to come from the federal government, not from visitors.
"I agree that the national park system is in need of additional funding, but raising fees for park visitors will only drive visitors away. Instead, the Department of the Interior should raise the money it needs to improve the park system by collecting the royalties that oil companies owe the United States,” he says.
Passart1_copy_2 Can we expect a respite from these proposed increases? Not in the near future or without congressional intervention. This stream of fee increases has been in the works for a while as the Park Service, I've been told, "
is trying to establish a consistent, across-the-board fee structure composed of four tiers. Most parks have not increased fees since 1997."
Here's some additional background to what's transpiring:
The goal of the new pricing structure is to have entrance fees support NPS goals, be consistent, simple to administer and adjust with inflation while providing the public with a pricing structure that is fair, equitable and easy to understand. The model has four pricing categories based primarily on the legislative designation of the site: National Monument, National Historic Site, large destination National Parks and other National Parks. The consistent pricing points were based on services provided and the similarity of resources.
Now, during FY06 I understand 23 NPS units boosted their entrance fees to mesh with the new fee structure. During this fiscal year another 11-13 are scheduled to implement the new pricing, and in FY 2008 the bulk of the park units (approximately 85) will align with the fee structure model.
Any park units that haven't boosted their fees by FY09 will do it then.
Now, truth be told, I've been trying since the second week of January to get the Park Service to provide a breakdown of park units in each of those four tiers and the associated entrance fee price and, after I don't know how many emails and even some phone calls, haven't been able to garner that information.
At least not from the Park Service.
I have become aware of a spreadsheet of some proposed and enacted fee hikes for FY06, FY07, and FY08. Among the jumps planned for FY07 is a $5 bump, to $20, at Big Bend; a $5 boost, to $25, at Bryce Canyon; the aforementioned doubling at Everglades; a $5 increase at Mesa Verde, to $15; and a doubling, to $20, at Theodore Roosevelt. At Black Canyon of the Gunnison, this summer's jump to $15 is an 88 percent increase from the previous $8 fee.
Now, a sad irony of these fee increases is that the Park Service could actually lose money on these deals when you also factor in the America the Beautiful Pass. Let's say you go to a handful of parks a year, or go to the same one or two parks a handful of times. Well, you'd be smart to shell out the $80 for the ATB Pass rather than pay $25 each visit. And if you did that not only would the park lose that daily entrance fee, but if you bought your ATB Pass at a Forest Service or BLM office, those agencies would keep the lion's share of your $80 and the Park Service would get a pittance.
And if you bought your pass at REI or EMS or some other retail outlet, well, no one is publicly saying exactly how those revenues will be distributed.
And if all that happens, how would the Park Service be able to "support its goals"?
What's particularly distasteful about this fee onslaught, aside from the fact that our tax dollars supposedly paid/pay for the parks and that Congress and the various administrations are failing in their obligation to fully fund the Park Service, is that the legislation that started this process, the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, never really got its day in Congress.
Rather, sleight-of-hand was used to attach it as a rider to an appropriations bill and it made its way to the president's desk for signature without full consideration by the House of Representatives or even introduction into the Senate (which I understand ain't too happy about that oversight).
And justice for all? Not in this case.
So what to do? Should you just sit back, sigh heavily, and reach deeper into your wallet the next time you want to enter your favorite national park? Should you simply stop going to national parks? Or should you take some action?
Choose door No. 3.
In the House of Representatives, Congressman Nick Joe Rahall is the new chair of the House Resources Committee and earlier this year he announced his intentions to examine a number of Park Service issues, including entrance fees. So, you might voice your concerns over the fee situation at his site.
Another congressman to complain to is Rep. Raul Grijalva, who chairs the House national parks subcommittee. Just go to his website and click the bright yellow "e-mail Raul" button on the upper righthand column.
On the Senate side, contact Senator Jeff Bingaman, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight over national parks. You can reach him via this site.
Of course, you also could speak up when your favorite national park announces a proposed entrance fee increase and asks for your reaction.
Will such lobbying do any good? It surely can't hurt.


I think another question to ask, is whether the entrance fees are fulfilling there original purpose, which was in-part, to help parks fund projects outside of the scope of the NPS budget. These were supposed to be projects like more wayside interpretive signs, and even to help with the maintenance backlogs. A lot of people stood behind the fees for this reason, including the NPCA - http://www.npca.org/media_center/testimonies/testimony061902.html But today, park fees are being assigned based on a perception of a recreational value, the logic of which says a visit to Grand Canyon is worth more than a visit to Chaco and should be priced accordingly. As visitors, we are no longer asked to pay this extra tax to cover the extra services we will receive, we are now being asked to cover the shortcomings of the federal budget for core park operations. At some point, we have to say, this is not how you fund a federal agency. Imagine if we funded public schools this way, and every week students had to pay a fee to enter the classroom. Education from the most popular teachers would cost more than the lesser known ones. A sub-class of student would emerge who could afford the popular teachers, the rest would just have to consider themselves lucky to have any education at all. Then there would be some kids who would never come to school, because having to spend any additional tax for a public service was beyond their means. The wealthy would accept this model because they could afford it, but the silent majority wouldn't know they had a voice. The Grand Canyon is now $25 a car. Are there tax paying families which cannot afford this? If the price keeps going up, at what point would you not be able to afford your own visit? I agree with Kurt, why not speak now rather than wait until you too are priced out, when it might be too late to speak.
I doubt that anyone driving to the Grand Canyon cannot afford to pay $25 to get in. The Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Loop is roughly 200 miles - conservatively estimating vehicle costs @ $0.385 means a family just spent $77 just driving there from the nearest city. Can they afford to drive there but not afford to pay the entrance fee? Sure, it would be great if we didn't have to pay fees to use public lands, but that just isn't realistic anymore. If the market determines that $25 is fair value for the benefits and experiences achieved by one's visit, than $25 should be the cost. If demand goes down, so will the price. If someone has a philosophical objection to user fees on public lands, I can accept that. I just happen to disagree. I agree with you that it would be great if fees weren't the way we funded a federal agency, but this is the way it is. The money has to come from somewhere.
"If the market determines that $25 is fair value for the benefits and experiences achieved by one's visit, than $25 should be the cost. If demand goes down, so will the price." Wrong. Wrong. And wrong. Demand HAS gone done, but fees are going up. Visitation has slumped at many "premier" parks. The news has been full recently of parks complaining about declining visitation. If that's the case, they should be lowering fees to attract more visitors, not raising them. The market is not determining the fees. The government is setting them, and rather arbitrarily in my opinion.
If the higher fees mean fewer visitors, great. The land can use a rest from the trampling hordes.
The market will determine the fees. If the seller prices their product too high (a strong argument can be made that this is the case), then people will stop buying it and prices will (eventually, in normal cases) go down. Of course, this is not a normal case, since we are talking about the NPS - but I'll still stand by the power of people not to purchase a product, especially one as readily available as most of what the park service has to offer. Sure, they have the "premier" parks, but almost all of what you find there is available via USFS or BLM for a very reduced rate or in many cases, for no fee at all - and usually right outside the NPS' boundary. You just have to look for it. I'm a believer in paying for what you use. If you use public lands for recreation, you should pay for it. Maybe your "premier" parks should be $15 instead of $25, but I personally don't believe it should be $0.
So, Kurt, when you read that the parks are simply a marketable commodity defined in terms of their use, it makes you write some of the essays you have about romanticism, eh? I would just like to remind you that though the parks have inspired us all to a poetry we could scarcely think possible, their being as "parks" has always been a reality based on something like what Matt talks about here. So, the question becomes one of economics and the ethics of economics...Matt should be writing propaganda for the World Bank with this rhetoric (perhaps, we should also charge tolls for the sidewalks as well)...and yet his view is the one from which the parks arose. The very word "park" suggests a utilitarian (that is, use) notion. And, use...well, comes with a cost, but who collects, and who pays, and how is it paid for and collected, and on and on...how dreary, but that's all we're talking about here. This view can be challenged, but I think the harsh truth is that it means confronting those people that are hallowed among parks advocates. Perhaps, it's a form of patricide, but I can't see how we deal with this view of land and use without daring ourselves to go all the way. Jim
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Jim, What about public transportation? These networks are highly subsidized by our tax dollars and we all benefit from them whether we utilize them or not. I have less traffic to deal with on the freeway because there are less folks driving when they are on the subway. I derive indirect benefits from this public transporation, benefits I receive because of my tax dollars paying for that service. If I chose to ride the subway and derive direct benefits (no wear and tear on my vehicle, fuel cost, more relaxing commute) I have to pay a toll. Do you object to that? Should the subways be free because they are paid for by tax dollars? Everyone benefits indirectly from the existence of our national parks, benefits paid for by our tax dollars. If one wants to enjoy the direct benefits of visitation, why shouldn't they pay for it?
However, "poetry" and "commodity" aside, the National Parks are different. They are governed by a sense of democracy. These are literally "the people's parks..." This is not poetry; it is the founding principle of the system. The parks are "set aside" for all Americans - and not just the ones who can afford resort prices, but for all Americans. This means that a certain level of accessability is essential to its purpose. For this reason, access to those who may not have equal financial resources becomes an important part of the Park Service's purpose. This is why they do resemble public transportation (as Matt points out) or even public art or airwaves. There is a public interest in the parks being accessable. I'm always hearing government officials and concessionaire employees comparing the parks to other resorts for pricing guidelines (which is the essence of the "market value" debate). Lately we've seen the middle and lower classes squeezed out of the parks by this argument... not only with entrance fees but with ever increasing prices for lodging, camping, etc. Here in Oregon, rooms at Crater Lake hover in the $100+ price range double-occupancy each night. At Yosemite, the same. The price of a family trip to the parks has become something most families can't do. Those arguing for the market to set prices forget that we cannot build more motels and campgrounds in parks to keep up with demand... nor can we just add parks to keep up with entrance demands. In the end, the market doesn't help us when it comes to the people's right to access the parks. What distinguished the American park idea from earlier park notions in Europe and other places, was that it belonged to - and therefore was accessable to - ALL the people. If we don't begin reversing the trend, the parks will be only for the elite wealthy and that would frankly be a disgrace.
All or some, we are still only talking on the utilitarian spectrum; Glenn, all you've done is modify the scope of the spectrum of use, ownership, and therefore entitlement. And, so you are talking about how to shift costs, and the priorities involved with that. The parks are still either there for you, or they are there for me, or for all of us, or some of us, but they are still defined in terms of their use. And, I question whether that's actually how we should look at these things. Secondly, as to Matt, I personally don't believe that there should be user fees for any public service (subways, buses, or anything that we think defines what should be provided for all as a public resource), but that's really beside the point of my post. I'm questioning the loaded terminology we use when defining "parks" or other things that we happen to use. However, if something belongs to us all collectively, then the fact that fewer use it is really beside the point; it's a collective value that is at stake and therefore a collective cost on us all. If it's not a collective value, then we should consider that. But, I don't think it's helpful to think of these places as ours, actually, and I don't think we can determine the value so rigidly so long as the current class systems are in place. Anyhow, that's enough for now.
Matt, Why is public transportation "subsidized" but highway projects are "funded"? You pay only a fraction of the total cost for you to drive your car. Glenn, I'm with you. And some rooms at Crater Lake go for over 200 a night. Who can afford three nights there? That's my rent for a month.
Hey, I'm one of the "poor" folk you mention. I can't afford $15/20 night camping fees, much less $100/200/night for a hotel room. I splurged last fall and went to Yosemite for 3 days -- camped every night, paid $20/night plus reservation fee plus entrance fee. Campground crowded and falling apart. Park personel obviously harried and overworked,though pretty darn pleasant and helpful in spite of obvious understaffing. This was a once-in-a-lifetime investment for me. Heck, I can stay in Oregon State Parks for $12-16/day, much better facilities including free showers, garbage pick-up, great hiking trails and friendly and knowleadgable park personnel.... The difference? The state of Oregon funds its parks through taxes and the lottery. They don't expect user fees to support the entire enterprise. And we shouldn't expect the National Parks to be funded solely or even mainly by user fees. I am happy to pay REASONABLE fees, not a month's rent for a 4-day vacation.
Most poor people will never see one of grand jewel national parks. I've been lucky in my life, and even then, though I planned for instance every year to go to Yellowstone between 1998-2005, I could not possibly scrape the money or the time to go back. And, despite years of debt, one year of unsteady work that at a couple times bordered on homelessness, I could hardly be considered even indicative of most poor if only because I didn't have a family to support, much of the time had access to a reliable vehicle, and even for some of that time paid vacations. Much of the debate about user fees in parks occurs, I think, between the middle and the upper class. Actually, because access to crown jewel parks has historically and is currently mostly for middle and upper class people, almost all the debate is on that class playing field. So, Matt will assume that we support user fees for basic public services like utilities, subways, etc. because at the urban level, user fees are a way of life that help keep a dividing line between middle and lower class people. There seems to be a presumption that an audience talking about parks must come from a middle class perspective, and where a user fee seems acceptable to the average middle class person in one instance, it should seem acceptable in the other. I know a lot of people in DC who won't take buses for reasons that amount to racism and classism; at a step higher, they won't take the subway. But, many who take the subway won't take the bus, and fees are higher for the subway. Where we are on the class ladder and who we are leaving out and whether we can afford something and what is gained by keeping out those who can't will often determine what a person thinks about user fees, whether for right or wrong. What is "reasonable" in one instance for one person is hardly so for another in another circumstance. The state park fees won't work for yet another class of people. Some can't even afford the $1.25 for a bus fare in my city. I remember talking with one homeless man by the Canadian Embassy; he was hoping to have a day on the town that day because he had enough money to ride on the subway. It was a burden for him to go anywhere even when he had the money because it meant leaving all his worldly possessions behind or finding a way to haul most of them. Now, we see in this area that corporations are attempting to privatize interstate highways and pay for new lanes by charging user fees so that people could opt in to the high occupancy vehicle lanes. This is a class-based solution to a community problem. That's really what user fees in the parks are. That's actually what the parks as constituted are; i.e., a place for "use" by a certain type of person - the mythical "the people", who have never meant "all people," (and even if they did, the anthropocentrism of the point of view still wreaks). But, of course, if you somehow decided that everyone must be able to see every crown jewel park, you'd run them over more than they already are; that's if the economy didn't collapse from the cost of such a subsidy program. The way to combat this is to deal with environmental and class issues everywhere. If people have access to basic services everywhere, if people care about the land everywhere, if people cut down on consumption and exploitation everywhere, the park won't need to be the place where people go to get away from consumption (while all the while consuming more ... just to get there and to stay there) but will again be the special place that is there for those who are drawn to it by nature (and not simply because they have both the economic privilege to go as well as a lack of other places to visit). People won't avoid going to crown jewel parks, then, because of class reasons but because there is much more in their local worlds to draw them in. They won't need to go off to the woods a thousand miles away to ease their spiritual crisis - their spirit will resonate for most in their communities. In my years in Yellowstone, I never met a higher concentration of people who seemed to be searching for something, alienated by life - philosophers, artists, writers, drifters of all kinds (perhaps, ironically, the internet is a place similar to Yellowstone in this very regard). That's a result of this process. So, I firmly believe the best way to preserve parks is to destroy what creates the need to preserve and protect them in the first place. Where we tell beings that they deserve to have only what they themselves can pay for, we will only continue the social disintegration. User fees in parks and elsewhere for services in common to us all only serve to further stratify society and keep us separated not only from nature and from each other, but from reaching the fullest potential of ourselves. I'm hardly an idealist, but I'm not willing to settle for the mediocrity sold to us by this class-based system. Cheers, Jim
OK, Jim, I'm convinced and I agree that this is a class-based debate. I say that I will pay reasonable fees because I CAN pay some fees NOW, but I see those fees rising all the time and understand that I am being cut off from public lands because of lack of money. So what is the solution here? Only the rich should enjoy our crown jewel parks because they can afford to pay the fees? Or should those crown jewel fees go to support other not-so-crown-jewel parks that are more accessible to the rest of us? Or should some of our national tax dollars be dedicated to making ALL national parks, monuments and lands as accessible as possible to as many folks as possible? Seems like back in the 70's when I began my wanderings public lands were very open and affordable for me -- a sometime-gainfully employed destitute part-time student. I'm not that elevated in class-status nowadays, but really can't afford too many visits anymore. Yeah, there are other places and believe me, I've found lots of them. But they are definately not "crown jewel" status. Is this country willing to admit that taxes really DO pay for worthwhile things -- even if intangible, as Jim describes?
If longterm is working community-by-community issue by issue against classism in society (all while linking each issue to the larger problem), I think in the short term that there are solutions that would begin to eliminate class while at the very least not doing any worse ecologically by crown jewel parks. We could insist that anyone passing through the gates be educated about the place they are going at, before, or just after they enter the gates. In a Hawaii state park near delicate coral on Oahu, the state requires all people before entry to look at an educational video. People grumble about standing in line, and yet they do so anyhow. In the end, I'd prefer this not be brought about by the Park Service but at the grassroots level -- however, we are not there yet. Money shouldn't be the determining ecological control on whether some humans see the parks while others don't. Many of the parks, as constituted, could support 10 times the number of people in them if people weren't so ignorant, thoughtless, and disrespectful.
Perhaps ecology/environment/personal responsibility for public lands should be taught in all public schools? Seems like kids are ALWAYS turned on by being introduced to just about ANYTHING outdoors, if given the opportunity. Maybe also some kind of Vista-type program for the environment rather than urban areas? Wouldn't it be great if there was a universal draft-for-the-environment?
MS Kennedy, your comments are well taken. However, under Bush's environmental policies it's strictly scorch earth. I can remember when President Kennedy was in office, he helped to stimulate physical fittest programs...remember those 50 mile certicate walks? Under this present "selected" President, he advocates nothing of the sort...except more bodies for the sickening Iraq war.
Entry fees for the parks were introduced as a way of generating funds that would directly contribute to the visitor experience. It was begun with the best of intentions and has been twisted and convoluted into a money beast. Fee Demo funds have escalated to the tens of millions in some parks and are referred to as "soft money". Along with puppet non profit organizations the Park Service looks much like a political party (Democrat or Republican...it doesn't matter) Both parties have contributed to this system and NPS leadership has embraced it. Flat budgets and dwindling funds are better described as smoke and mirrors. Some parks spending (Base budgets and Project funds) has more than doubled in the last ten years.