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Our National Parks: "For the Benefit And Enjoyment Of The People" (If You Don't Mind the Entrance Fee)
While the three "entrance-fee-free" weekends in the National Park System are now behind us, the debate over the propriety of park entrance fees no doubt will go forward, if not heighten, in the wake of some impressive visitor numbers logged by some parks. One organization that you won't hear lobbying for a permanent waiving of the fees, though, is the American Recreation Coalition, which was a strong voice for them more than a decade ago and continues that stance today.
While the entrance fees are a minimal part of any national park visit -- costing no more than $25 for a week for a carload -- the Interior Department's decision to offer three weekends without the fees this summer is an indication that those in Washington suspect, at least, that fees can be directly tied to visitor numbers. The National Park Service isn't yet gripping tightly to that connection -- "it is doubtful the fee free weekend had a significant direct effect on the YTD or monthly service-wide visitation numbers," the agency said last week.
But when you have parks such as Mammoth Cave reporting a 28 percent increase in visitation for the first free weekend back in June and a 61 percent increase for the free weekend in July, and Rocky Mountain National Park reporting a 32 percent increase for the June weekend, is it so difficult to make a connection?
No doubt the heightened publicity about the national parks this year has helped. After all, neither Mammoth Cave nor Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which also had a strong June, have entrance fees. Furthermore, park visitation is up across the system this year. Yellowstone is doing record numbers of visitors, as is Glacier National Park. According to the National Park Service, through the first half of 2009 the National Park System counted 127,728,898 visits, an increase of nearly 4.5 million visits over the same period in 2008. In June alone, visitation to national parks increased by over 718,000 visits between 2008 to 2009, it noted.
But what's often lost in this debate over cause-and-effect are the intentions of those who helped forward the national park movement a century ago. Many view President Theodore Roosevelt as one of the most environmentally focused presidents in the country's history. True, he had a love of hunting, but beyond that he had a love of the land. And he thought places such as Yellowstone and Yosemite and other national parks should be open to all, without charge. Here is how he put it on April 24, 1903, during dedication of the arch at the north entrance to Yellowstone that today bears his name:
The Yellowstone Park is something absolutely unique in the world so far as I know. Nowhere else in any civilized country is there to be found such a tract of veritable wonderland made accessible to all visitors, where at the same time not only the scenery of the wilderness, but the wild creatures of the Park are scrupulously preserved, as they were the only change being that these same wild creatures have been so carefully protected as to show a literally astonishing tameness. The creation and preservation of such a great national playground in the interests of our people as a whole is a credit to the nation; but above all a credit to Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. It has been preserved with wise foresight. The scheme of its preservation is noteworthy in its essential democracy. Private game preserves, though they may be handled in such a way as to be not only good things for themselves but good things for the surrounding community, can yet never be more than poor substitutes, from the standpoint of the public, for great national play grounds such as this Yellowstone Park. This Park was created, and is now administered for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. The government must continue to appropriate for it, especially in the direction of completing and perfecting an excellent system of driveways.
But already its beauties can be seen with great comfort in a short space of time and at an astonishingly small cost, and with the sense on the part of every visitor that it is in part his property; that it is the property of Uncle Sam and therefore of all of us. The only way that the people as a whole can secure to themselves and their children the enjoyment in perpetuity of what the Yellowstone National Park has to give, is by assuming the ownership in the name of the nation and jealously safeguarding and preserving the scenery, the forests, and the wild creatures.
Would permanently waiving entrance fees not be in keeping with the spirit and intent of what our forefathers wanted?
Currently, according to the National Park Service, "visitation to parks that charge entrance fees makes up less than 35% of total visitation," a little-known fact that further skews the fairness of entrance fees. Why should Great Smoky, which attracts more than 9 million visitors each year, not charge entrance fees, while Golden Spike National Historic Site, which counted just 39,968 visitors last year, charges $7 in summer and $5 in winter to gain entrance? (The answer of course, is that Congress, in creating Great Smoky, prohibited entrance fees for the park. But what Congress has done it can just as easily undo.)
Wholly supportive of entrance fees is the American Recreation Coalition, a throttle-oriented organization whose members include the American Council of Snowmobile Associations, Family Motor Coach Association, International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, National Marine Manufacturers Association (ie. the personal watercraft manufacturers), Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association, Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, The Walt Disney Company, American Motorcyclist Association, American Suzuki Motor Corporation, Americans for Responsible Recreational Access, Association of Marina Industries, Boat U.S., Bombardier Recreational Products, Family Campers and RVers, Florida RV Trade Association, International Association of Snowmobile Administrators, Marine Retailers Association of America, Motorcycle Industry Council, Personal Watercraft Industry Association, Recreational Park Trailer Industry Association, Specialty Equipment Market Association, Specialty Vehicle Institute of America (ie. the ATV industry), Thor Industries, Inc. (the self-proclaimed "world's largest manufacturer of recreation vehicles"), American Power Boat Association, International Association for Amusement Parks and Attractions, International Jet Sports Boating Association, National Hot Rod Association, and the National Off-Road Bicycle Association.
The long-standing president of the American Recreation Coalition is Derrick Crandall, a Washington lobbyist who was among the initial proponents of "user fees" for public lands. This is how he portrayed them on February 26, 1998, during a congressional hearing before the House Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands:
Recreation fees on public lands were one of the issues which prompted the creation of the American Recreation Coalition in 1979. As we have said to this subcommittee several times before, the recreation community enjoys free lunches just as much as any other interest group, but we have come to understand that it is hard to demand a great menu and top food when you aren't paying. And we certainly understand that recreation on federal lands really isn't a free lunch: the costs have simply been borne by general taxes, not user fees.
Beginning in the early 1980's, we came to understand that during periods of financial pressure on the federal government, recreation programs were as much in jeopardy as other "nice" federal endeavors. And by 1982, the consequences were becoming clear. Campgrounds in our national forests were opening later and closing earlier -- frustrating millions who sought to use their lands during shoulder seasons, but found only locked gates. We saw declines in the numbers of interpretive efforts underway -- the ranger walks and campfire talks that have left indelible impressions on me and tens of millions of others. We saw recreationists and federal officials alike frustrated that no budgets were available to create facilities for, and to administer, such newly popular recreational activities as mountain biking and personal watercraft use, Nordic skiing and more.
More recently, Mr. Crandall said the following the other day in the wake of the boost in national park visitation this year:
"As I've repeatedly said, I'm not sure fee-free days was the right marketing tool," said Crandall. "But it did stir up media interest and welcome interest among the American people. It wasn't just the fee-free days. The publicity reminded the American public what a great value the national parks are."
The parks are, and continue to be, a great value, even under the current entrance fee structure. But that's besides the point. What should be of concern is that, as Mr. Crandall pointed out in 1998, the costs of maintaining public lands haven't been met fully by the Congress, and so it resorted to political sleight of hand -- the requisite legislation was quietly attached to a larger bill without full consideration by either the House or the Senate, first in 1996 and again just a few years ago -- to institute a pay-to-play tax. It's a tax that the land-management agencies have become addicted to. It's also one that some members of Congress realize is patently unfair to Americans, whose income taxes theoretically are to be used to maintain the public landscape.
"Americans already pay to use their public lands on April 15,” Senator Max Baucus, D-Montana, said in December 2007 when he and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, introduced the Fee Repeal and Expanded Access Act of 2007. “We shouldn’t be taxed twice to go fishing, hiking, or camping on OUR public lands. It just doesn’t make any sense. That’s why Mike and I are going to fight like the dickens to get this bill passed."
Here's what Senator Crapo had to say:
“As an outdoorsman and legislator, I have always supported fair and reasonable access to our nation’s public lands. Mandatory user fees for access to many of those lands limits accessibility to those who can afford the cost and results in a “pay-to-play” system that is unacceptable. I also fully recognize that we need to adequately fund recreation activities on federal lands and will continue to fight in Congress to make sure the funding needs of our public lands management agencies are met.”
Now, what's interesting about the senators' legislation is that it didn't apply to national park entrance fees. But that's another story.