Reader Participation Day: Should NPS Fee-Free Days Be Dumped?

Fee-free days can offer a nice ride in the park, but they also are a big money loser for the National Park Service. Do you benefit from these days? Should the program be continued? Photo by David and Kay Scott.

Fee-free days at national park units have become an annual event following their introduction in 2004-05. The freebies have not only continued, but have been expanded from two days (Public Land Day and Veterans Day) initially to the current 17 days.

The expansion started in 2009 in an effort to encourage additional visitation, promote the parks, and offer families a chance to enjoy our country’s heritage and natural areas despite a sour economy.

The offset, of course, is the revenue loss by parks sorely in need of more, not less funding. Jane Moore, who manages the National Park Service's Recreation Fee Program, estimates lost revenues for 2012 of from $3.5 million to $5 million, although she notes several factors complicate any effort at determining an accurate estimate.

The Park Service selected the current fee-free dates on non-peak season weekends in an effort to minimize revenue losses while at the same time offering folks an extra reason to visit and enjoy the parks, especially during each April’s National Park Week.

In any case, the loss of revenue is a relative drop in the bucket for the NPS, which had a 2012 budget of approximately $3 billion.

As an aside, the National Park Foundation sells sponsorships for NPS fee-free days. According to the organization’s web site, sponsorship for National Park Week was available for $3.5 million. At the lower end, sponsorship of the fee-free Veterans’ Day weekend could be had for only $1 million. This seems an odd promotion, something like selling sponsorships for Arbor Day or Mother’s Day. Still, there’s reason to celebrate if fee-free sponsorships divert corporate funds away from Super PACs and funnel them toward the national parks.

In any case, we’re interested in your opinion of the pros and cons of fee-free days. Is the revenue loss offset by additional goodwill and publicity, or should the program be tanked?

Comments

I suppose the NPS could tell us whether the free days are a net profit (from increased spending by visitors, or return visits) or a loss (from lost revenue those days), but it's not the mission of the NPS to make a profit.

I'm more concerned about excessive use on those days. Also, the more free days you give, the more you undermine the value of the passes some of us buy.....

I think they should dump them. A drop in the bucket or not $3.5 million to $5 million can fund a lot of seasonal employess. And being one I hate to see the money lost...

The real figures are difficult to come up with but historic patterns can apply. Lowering the price (or taxes) encourages more activity. With the additional visitation and exposure in just monetary ways, more is spent at NPS partners and concessionaire outlets with part of the cut going back to NPS. The benefit to those Americans that would most likely be encouraged to visit by the no-fee days are significant especially with 80 million people out of work. Experiencing the Parks for many is a priceless boost to mental well being. I encourage the continued use of no-fee days for the parks.

No more free days. Everyone needs to help pay for our parks. I would like for vet's to go free,but you start making exceptions, then you have "17"

I've always had trouble believing that many people decide to go to a park based on saving that $10 or $20 entrance fee. If you live more than a couple hours drive from the park, that savings starts becoming an insignificant incentive when travel costs are factored in. Then again, people aren't that good at math. I've seen people spend $40 in gas to save $20 on a purchase of an iPod. Maybe enough people live close enough that it actually makes a difference between going and not going. If so, they should be kept.

If I stumble into a park on a fee-free day, that's great, but when most of my park visits are priced in hundreds of dollars (if not four figures), the entrance fee is the least of my concerns. Timing it to get a motel room for $49 instead of $189 is what I'm paying attention to, and I would suspect (based on zero knowledge of any actual statistics) the same of most visitors.

Fee-free days have at least two big positives. First, the program provides anyone, regardless of means, with an opportunity to visit a national park free of charge. It also satisfies the argument of those who feel they have already paid through income taxes. Second, fee-free days are great public relations opportunities for parks to bond with their neighbors, especially those who often take the resource for granted and therefore may know little about it. The "movement" toward free entrance days has been a popular one among museums, parks, and other 501c3 organization over the past few decades. Most seem to provide free or significantly reduced admission one or two days a month, sometimes with residency restrictions. With the worst economic recession since WWII still upon us and no end in sight, many organizations are reevaluating their policies. For the NPS, I think the "social" benefits still outweigh the lost revenues and justify the continuation of the program.

Gee, I'd like to know more about how you came by the attitude, Anon. Citizens now and several generations yet born will be paying for the borrowed $700 million in Stimulous NPS got just two years ago. Suck it up I'd say!

If you look at the statistics, the free days have been a bust. The increase in recreational visits since 2009 vs. 2008 numbers has been less than 4% annually and that was only in 2009, the first year of the expansion. If you look back a couple of more years you'll find that current visitation is less than it was in 2000. So, has the free days concept really done anything for parks?

Depends on what the goal was. Clearly, if it was to get more people to visit the parks it has failed. If it was to give the parks a little more publicity then it may have helped some. If it was to help the foundation by giving them the opportunity to sell sponsorships, since you can't sell naming rights to national parks, then it may have worked. However, I haven't seen on the foundation's website any information about one of these sponsorships being sold nor is it listed in their annual report. Overall, I would have to give the effort a big fat "F" for failing.

If the goal is to get more people into the parks, then let's not charge the citizens to enter a park that they have already paid for with their tax dollars. (Or through borrowing money from China.) That would result in a big loss of revenue for NPS but maybe the result would be more money spent in the parks on food, gifts or lodging (thus increasing NPS revenue through fees to concessionairs) and more revenues for the gateway communities outside the parks.

I'm a lot more concerned about the inequities of the fees on the days when people do have to pay. As in the Great Smoky Mountains being free 365 days a year. There was a time when that was appropriate, but it is no longer.