Park Entrance Fees, Boon or Bain?

$150,000,000.
That's a lot of money. And that, roughly, is what it might cost to do away with entrance fees the Park Service charges at 147 of its 390 units.
That $150 million, you see, is what the Park Service hauls in every year from entrance fees. And so, if you believe the Park Service should be entrance-fee free, well, that's the chunk of change Congress would have to come up with to offset the entrance fees.
The issue is not just philosophical, you see, it's very much financial, because that $150 million is put to use throughout the park system to pay for things such as road and trail improvements, shuttle bus systems, even restrooms.
Of course, that leads to another philosophical question, because some believe entrance fees were intended to provide a "margin of excellence" for the parks, and in many cases the fees are paying for basic necessities that it can be argued the Park Service's budget should cover.

As I'm in Washington this week, I was able to discuss the financial and philosophical aspects of entrance fees the other day with David Barna, the Park Service's chief of communications, two of his staff (Jeff Olson and Kathy Kupper) and Jane Moore, the agency's fee management point person.
And philosophical views definitely came in, as David told me the Park Service believes park users should pay more for the care and upkeep of the parks than those who don't visit the parks, even though their tax dollars go towards that end. Jane, meanwhile, would love to be put out of business by a hefty increase in the Park Service's annual appropriations, enough that would negate the need for entrance fees.
But we're not likely to see that, are we?
Times always seem tough, financially, in Washington, especially when it comes to crafting agency budgets. And it can easily be said that the Park Service is doing much better than such sister agencies as the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service.
Of course, that number -- $150 million -- is another reason we're not likely to see entrance fees go away anytime soon. The Park Service has become accustomed, like a teenager to a new set of wheels, to that extra serving of green, so much so that it's using the income to pay for things such as Zion's shuttle system, restoration projects, search-and-rescue facilities, trail upkeep, even habitat restoration work.
Indeed, between 1997 and 2006, entrance fees paid for 11,700 projects that cost a cumulative $1.89 billion.
"We need this extra money because there's good things happening with this money," Jane told me.
And she's right. Good projects are being funded.
But what do you think would happen if that pool of money wasn't available? Any chance that constituent unrest over shabby park conditions would prompt Congress to provide more funding for the parks? And then, of course, flip the coin. If the Park Service is bringing in $150 million a year in entrance fees, what's to keep Congress from saying, "Gee, stop whining about your needs, simply raise your entrance fees a tad to cover them."
And where does that stop?
While the Park Service has been charging entrance fees since 1916, until 1996 no park charged you more than $10 to enter. Now, of course, 13 charge $20 or more (Badlands was supposed to reach $20 this year, but that was rescinded, ditto with Everglades and Theodore Roosevelt), and that number is scheduled to be bumped to 29 by 2009.
Of course, it's important to keep in mind that these fees are good for seven days, which still makes a park visit an incredible bargain.
But when does that bargain end? Some already believe the current state of entrance fees is keeping folks away from the parks. And with the current schedule to higher entrance fees in writing (even if there is some flex), and with inflation to be used to boost fees steadily higher down the road, how much becomes too much?
And don't forget the unknown of what the America the Beautiful Pass might do to Park Service revenues, and how the agency might be forced to respond to a decline.
How soon might it be before parks truly do become elitist, natural enclaves only for the well-heeled? Think about it. Most in-park lodgings cost $100 or more a night, unless you're sleeping on the ground or a cot. Meals are becoming more and more costly, especially when you're feeding a family of four or more. And don't forget to figure in the cost of gas to get to and back from your favorite park.
These are all issues that must be weighed. And certainly, when you look at the big picture, the entrance fees are a pittance of an overall national park vacation. How long we're able to continue saying that is something that certainly needs to be watched.

Parks with 2006 entrance fees of $20 or more

Acadia.................$20
Big Bend..............$20
Bryce Canyon.......$25
Death Valley.........$20
Denali..................$20
Glacier.................$25
Grand Canyon.......$25
Grand Teton..........$25
Rocky Mountain....$20
Sequoia/Kings.......$20
Yellowstone..........$25
Yosemite..............$20
Zion......................$25

Parks With 2009 fees scheduled to be $20 or more

Acadia..........................................$20
Arches..........................................$20
Badlands......................................$20
Big Bend......................................$20
Black Canyon of the Gunnison.....$20
Bryce Canyon...............................$25
Canyonlands.................................$20
Crater Lake...................................$20
Death Valley.................................$20
Denali...........................................$20
Everglades....................................$20
Glacier..........................................$25
Grand Canyon...............................$25
Grand Teton..................................$25
Haleakala......................................$20
Hawaii Volcanoes.........................$20
Joshua Tree..................................$20
Lassen Volcanic............................$20
Mesa Verde...................................$20
Mount Rainier................................$20
Olympic.........................................$25
Rocky Mountain.............................$25
Saguaro.........................................$20
Sequoia/Kings...............................$25
Shenandoah..................................$20
Theordore Roosevelt.....................$20
Yellowstone...................................$25
Yosemite........................................$25
Zion................................................$25