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?