Do Entrance Fees Have an Effect on Park Visitation?

sing it, "money, money, money, money, ...  mon-ey"I had wanted to get this post up last week, but I was among the million folks in the Pacific Northwest that lost their power for the last few days. I'm grateful for my trusty little backpacking stove. It was cold without power, but at least my meals were hot.

But, enough about me, on to the story ...

The other night at the NPCA forum in Seattle, I listened as nearly every person on the panel said one or both of these things: declining national park visitation is a problem that must be addressed; and, park visitation does not represent the face of America, there must be a pro-active effort made to attract youth and minorities populations into the National Parks.

During the Q/A, I asked the panel whether they thought there may be a connection between declining visitation and the underrepresented groups, and whether that connection could be entrance fees. As I framed my question to the panel, I used a visit to Olympic National Park as an example. One would have to pay $15 to get into the park, approx. $15 if you want to camp in the park, and if you'd like to do an overnight backcountry hike, you have to pay $5 for a permit plus $2 per person, per night. On top of that, the price for an NPS yearly park pass will jump 60% in the new year to $80. In light of all these fees, I had asked if the parks were not pricing out the very people they were trying to attract.

I'm happy to report, many on the panel had something to say about the issue. Some of the key points which were made by the panel.

  • Pinning the issue of declining visitation to a single culprit would be very difficult.
  • When compared to all the other costs associated with visiting a National Park, the entrance fee is very reasonable
  • According to a poll, people do not mind paying the entrance fees
  • People have a greater appreciation for something when they pay for it, instilling a sense of ownership
  • Visiting a park is still a terrific value compared to other family vacations, like Disneyland.

Each point I'll address below.

I happen to agree strongly with the first statement. Between higher gas prices, shorter vacations, decreased international visitors post 9/11, and more, there are surely many contributing factors to decreased visitation. But, in the articles I've read, and in the House Subcommittee on Parks hearings this summer, I have yet to see anyone look seriously at entrance fees as another factor. I think it should be considered.

And yes, compared with all other costs of a road-trip, entrance fees are reasonable. But, even reasonable fees can be a barrier to entry. In the last few years, the state of Washington added a $5 parking fee to most of its State Park facilities. With all the expenses associated with car ownership, who could argue that $5 isn't reasonable? And yet, visitation to the parks plummeted when the fee was introduced. When the fee was removed recently, visitation returned [1] [2].

Whether or not people mind paying to enter a park is beside the point. What if there were a tax gate we had to drive through every day? Would you mind paying $20 to help put the shuttle in space? How about $10 to help develop the next generation Navy aircraft? The idea is silly. Paying taxes a la cart would fail in a heartbeat, so instead, we've set up a pretty complicated tax code built so that all citizens pay their fare share to the feds. Bill Gates pays millions, most pay thousands, others pay less. The Park Service receives most of its funds through taxes, why are park visitors responsible for the rest (whether or not they enjoy it)?

You may have heard this one before, that you will appreciate something more if you've had to pay for it. The best response to this argument (and one that I did not make to the panel) is a statement attributed to Scott Silver of Wild Wilderness back in 1999. He said, "fees cheapen wilderness and alter the spiritual connection to wildness. It's like the difference between romantic love and paying for sex. You're going to feel different about the experience if you have to pay for something."

And finally, that argument about "parks are a terrific value compared to Disneyland". Frankly, I was a little surprised to hear it come from a panelist. For many, a wilderness hike, or gazing up at he Milky Way, or standing near a waterfall can be spiritually fulfilling experience, one that cannot be defined by a price tag. The comparison to Disneyland would be like saying, 'going to church is still a better value than going to watch the Denver Broncos'. Turning the park experience into a commodity that can be compared dollar for dollar with a souvenir Mickey Mouse doll does no service to our national parks, and is quite offensive to many.

As stated earlier, I enjoyed very much the opportunity to attend the NPCA forum. It was great to listen to a dialog about park issues with a panel who is concerned about the longterm welfare of these special places.