The "Real" Cost of Visiting a Park

There's a rising clamor these days about the cost of a national park vacation.
Entrance fees are on the rise, and some parks are even assessing fees for interpretive programs. And then there's the cost of gasoline, airfare if you're crossing the country, dining and lodging and on and on.
Add it all up and it's a hefty cost. Indeed, a week at one of the crown jewels of the park system can easily cost a family of four several thousand dollars.
Over at her blog, A Step Apart, Skyblu assailed this issue the other day with guns a-blazing, lashing out at those who complain about higher entrance fees and about snowmobiles in Yellowstone for not also attacking the seemingly endless fee creep in the parks. And she's got a valid point, for a family of four could easily spend $300 or more a day on food and lodging inside the park that just charged them $25 for that entry.
At Park Remark, Jeremy calls "family pricing" at national parks a "fallacy."
Could it be that national parks, those bucolic vistas where once-upon-a-time families would go to hike, paddle a canoe or row a boat and then gather around a campfire at night, are losing their luster because of the cumulative costs of visiting them?

Here's a random sampling of room costs during the summer high season:

Old Faithful Inn: High-range room, $151/night;

Yosemite Lodge at the Falls: Lodge rooms, $177/night

Grand Canyon: Kachina Lodge, $152/night

Grand Teton: Jackson Lake Lodge, $189-$199/night, non-view rooms

Sequoia: Wuksachi Lodge, Deluxe room, $204/night

Now, to be clear, these hefty fees are encountered only at the crown jewels of the park system, the Yellowstones, Yosemites, Grand Canyons and the like. And even in parks with rooms going for $150, $200 and beyond per night there are lesser accommodations and campsites to be had, and you can further cut your expenses by buying groceries for breakfast and lunch rather than opting for the hotel restaurant.
And to be just as fair, you're likely to encounter similar daily expenses, and then some, if you take your family to Boston or New York City or San Francisco.
Still, are we in danger of distinguishing the national parks by affordability? After all, a trip to the Grand Canyon is much higher-priced than one to, say, Arches or Canyonlands.
Of course, this is, quite simply, free enterprise at work. Businesses are entitled to make a good return on their investment. The sticky point is that these profits are being made on lands owned, at least technically, by the American public. Shouldn't the government see that these places remain affordable?
How much of a profit park concessionaires should make and at what expense of the general public that owns the national park system are the questions that we somehow need to fairly answer.
Jim Macdonald ruminated in a round-about way on such questions at his literary cyber-portal back in March by examining private property rights in the parks.
Yellowstone is a national park; it is a land created by politics. That politics has been premised on a complex ideology of property rights," wrote Jim. In this series of essays, I have made the case that the ideology of property rights infected the debate about the founding of Yellowstone National Park as well as the debate about the issues of today. Most advocates of Yellowstone argue along a continuum of property rights ranging from advocating the highest degree of private ownership to those arguing for the highest degree of public control.

The trick for us, of course, is to find a comfortable, affordable balance between those two extremes.
All lodging and concession rates charged on national park properties are approved by the Park Service, which takes into account rates charged at comparable facilities in the surrounding communities because, after all, the Park Service doesn't want to either undercut those businesses or gouge park visitors.
At the same time, as Skyblu points out, the Park Service is finding more and more ways to assess what it likes to call "amenity fees."
As each park unit discovers ways to allow concessionaires to take over NPS duties, they will. As each park unit manufactures unneeded services that can bring money to the trough, they will drink, she writes.
The result? Could it be we're steadily pricing folks out of the parks, with entrance fees the least of the worry?
But what's the solution to keep "affordability" in the national park experience? Do we in an effort to keep costs down do away with all but the minimum concessions, the food, drink and warm bed at night? Forget about campfire talks, ranger hikes, and boat rentals and stick to the basics of hiking trails and search-and-rescue teams on call?
Do we resort to socialism? Do we have the Park Service take over and run all the concessions within its borders at a governmentally-subsidized rate that Middle America can afford without taking out a vacation loan? And if so, why Middle America and not Low Income America or Food Stamp America?
Do we decide that the Park Service model for determining rates -- looking for comparables in surrounding communities -- should be done away with and the agency approve rates that allow businesses a return of but a point or two above inflation?
Or have we gone past the point of no return by having already placed a hefty price tag on the parks that can't be removed?
I don't know what the answer is. But if we don't do something, it seems the Park Service chances pricing vast numbers of Americans out of the national park landscapes and experiences. And that not only will cut down on the ranks of park advocates, but it will surely increase the costs for those few who can afford the price.
And where will that leave the parks?

Comments

Geez, Kurt, "literary cyber-portal"? LOL... I think I should clarify at least your use of my quote. When I talk about the continuum, you don't note that my series of essays in some sense is an attack on that continuum. The point of my essays isn't to find a balance between private ownership rights and public ownership rights but to say that there are no ownership rights at all by anyone. There is ownership for sure but no right to it. Understanding and coming to grips with that distinction (assuming my argument holds) is the turn our ethics must go. For the time being, I come down on the side of public control over private control, but that's a strategical consideration based on the practical realities my position leads me. At best, it's temporary. In any event, I'd invite people to slog through the essays. The discussion it raises, that skyblu has been talking about, that Scott Silver has been talking about, and that you raise here is a question that will keep coming up. We should have it in all seriousness. I would argue from a sociological perspective that many of the poor have always been priced out of crown jewel parks. What's happening is that more and more are on the outside looking in or are forced into particular ways of appreciating the parks. If we are to get a grip on it, we can't see this simply from the perspective of the national parks but from the standpoint of the entitlement ethics that stratifies every layer of our society.
I *knew* that'd get a comment from you, Jim;-) Sadly, I'm beginning to wonder if it's too late to have this discussion regarding the parks. Is the concrete already set? The larger societal issue you allude to has a much longer, more intricate, life than the one now involving the parks, and I'll leave that for others to debate. As for the parks, it seems that in the wake of World War II, as the Baby Boomers arrived, the parks were largely within reach of the masses. Indeed, that's what the Mission 66 program was largely built around, making the parks more accessible to the newly motorized public. It would be interesting to get an economist's input on that contention, someone who could compare today's costs of a park vacation to those of 50 years ago. I fear today that parks are being placed more and more out of reach of the masses, for myriad reasons, economics being just one aspect. It truly will be interesting to see whether Mr. Kempthorne and Ms. Bomar address this in their Centennial Initiative report to the president late this month.
Kurt, I know this isn't the response people like to hear but it really is out of Kemp's and Bomar's hands. Until the President and Congress choose to adequately fund the NPS instead of pushing private investment there really is not much they can do - other than resign in protest, which I doubt either of them plan on doing.
Speaking for one nuclear family that would like to visit the parks more, I'll tell you our experience. With work and school our times to visit are limited to summer and weekends. For that, in Yosemite and Sequoia, we have to reserve lodging six months in advance. I've tried in recent weeks to reserve space for spring break or Memorial Day --impossible. Last year, when I got a cabin at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge for Labor Day weekend just a few days in advance, due to a cancellation, the desk clerk treated me like I'd won the lottery, which, in fact, I had. We have camped, but there again, if you're coming from any distance, the 'no-reservations' campgrounds could be full by mid-afternoon, having been grabbed by people who live close enough to get there early. I'm not willing to drive for hours and risk not having a place to camp when I get there. It gotten to the point where I've just eliminated Yosemite or Sequoia from my list of places to go for the weekend. It's not the entrance fee or any other fee. I long for the way it was when I was a kid. We could just drive in the the National Parks and pull up at the lodge and get a room. There may be vacancies in mid-February on a weekday, but that doesn't allow working families with kids in school to go.
Kath, I do sympathize and I do know that feeling...try lite back packing in a few miles and see if your luck changes. You be suprised at the empty camp sites. Most vistors and campers don't venture off the beaten trails less then a few miles anyway. Good luck!
Done that. Requires a back country permit which at busy times you have to get well in advance. There can be no spur of the moment trips anymore to Yosemite, Yellowstone, Sequoia etc. So you won't see me shedding any tears over dropping visitation levels.
Seems like the general public's lack knowledge of other public lands (at low or no fee levels) is part of the problem. NFS and/or BLM lands surround many of the "crown" parks and have myriad free or low-cost options for recreation. I agree that some national parks are quickly approaching the unaffordable for those of us in the "masses" and many are becoming so commercialized that they are unattractive to visit as well. Some of these parks (like Yellowstone, Yosemite and Rocky Mountain) have a long history of catering to the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else, and it has only been by concerted effort and federal funding that they became more accessible to the rest of us. The present administration makes no secret of its ambitions to privatize as many government functions as possible, so it's clear that we need to elect members who will work for more equitable, affordable access to public lands.