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Are Entrance Fees Behind Visitation Slump?


    Earlier today I told you about the room glut at Yellowstone. And earlier this year I posted about a congressional hearing into park visitation trends. In both posts I touched on possible reasons behind the decline in national park visitation that has occurred since visitation peaked at 287 million visitors in 1999.
    Reasons cited range from high gas prices and too many other recreation alternatives to poor weather, hurricanes, a weak economy and even video games. Well, I was reminded earlier today of another possible cause behind the trend: increases in national park entrance fees.
    Now, I personally don't have a problem with park entrance fees. I spend $50 a year for a parks pass and visit as many parks as many times as I want. I feel the fee is reasonable, especially since 80 percent of it remains in the park where I buy the pass for on-the-ground work. I figure it's the least I can do for the national park system.
    Of course, not everyone heads to the parks as often as I do, and so they might skip that $50 investment and opt for paying the fee at the gate, which can range from nothing at Great Smoky Mountains National Park to $25 at Yellowstone.
    Might that $25 fee be an effective deterrent for some folks?

    That's an intriguing question, and one I'd like to hear from you on. Are the parks, which we theoretically already pay for through our taxes, pricing themselves out of the market? You wouldn't think so, not when you consider how much it costs these days to go out to dinner, to catch a movie or even to go bowling.'s something to consider. Especially when you hear what Canadians in British Columbia discovered. According to a story in the Vancouver Sun, an increase in parking-meter fees at provincial parks in British Columbia drove down visitation to those parks by about 1 million a year. And that was just for a $2 fee increase, from $3 to $5!
    Here's a snippet from the story:
        In May 2005, Management Services Minister Joyce Murray suggested the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the SARS outbreak may have depressed visits to parks.
        "And we had major forest fires that closed down half of British Columbia," she added. "So, not too surprising, park visits were down."      
        But a report by consultants Perrin, Thorau & Associates Ltd. -- commissioned by Environment Minister Barry Penner last fall -- leaves little doubt that parking fees are the main culprit.
        Using a sophisticated calculation based on everything from average temperatures to demographics, the report concluded that 75 per cent of the lost visits to parks "were due to the imposition of day use parking fees."

    Interesting, no? A $2 increase in parking fees was enough to persuade about 1 million folks to shun provincial parks. At Yellowstone, where visitation has declined the past three years running and is off almost 300,000 annually since 1999, the entrance fee has gone up $5 in the past year alone.
    So, help me with an unscientific study: Are increases in entrance fees enough to keep you away from the national parks?


I think that the combination of fees is getting out of hand. I recently went on an excursion to Joshua Tree NP and was a bit shocked at all the fees. My previous visit to the park was back when it was a NM, yet I did not see much evidence of massive improvements or new features to warrant the kind of fees required for a visit. I especially did not like the fact that cash was the preferred form of payment. After being on this earth for over half of a century, I have found that when large amounts of cash are collected by low level employees with no supervision/automated accounting system, that a very significant percentage can "disappear". Another observation: at the campgounds with "Hosts" there were many available spots. At the campgrounds without "Hosts" there were no empty spots.

I think there is a huge difference between day-use Parks that attract local residents on many repeat visits throughout the year and destination Parks that are the centerpiece of travel plans. Given all the other expenses for a family making a trip out to a Park like Yellowstone or Grand Canyon, the paltry Park fee is a rounding error in the budget for the trip to that Park. On the other hand, an increase of $2 in the fee for the Park where I like to take my kids or my dog for some quality time outdoors can really add up over the course of the year - especially if there are comparable free options for outdoor activities available. If anything, National Parks should be looking at how to increase their fees in order to fund needed projects.

I think the issue is not wether the visitor is willing to pay fees, the Park Service has surveyed and public scoped that issue and would not charge fees if the public were not tolerant. The real issue is what happens to the fees that are collected? The current fee use laws mandate that most of these fees go back into the park where generated to improve visitor services. That sounds wonderful as long as it doesn't follow the Lottery model. Lotteries send many dollars to schools and the politicians in turn cut general funds from the schools to spend on pet projects. The schools end up with the same funding they had before. It would be interesting to see real dollar spending for the parks since the Fee Use program started. Not just the budget and fee use money but total spending within each park by the Park Service and all it's partners. The term soft money exists in more places than just the political parties.

If fees are the issue, how do you explain decreased visitation at areas that charge no fees?

Compared with prices for movies, theme parks, etc., park entrance fees are more than reasonable. And if the Whiny Family -- Mom, Dad and all the little Whinys -- opts to spend that money playing video games or whatever, then great, a little more open space for the rest of us. Face it, Congress is not going to fund the parks to the level they need. And remember, those funds come out of our pocketbook just like an entrance fee, except we pay taxes whether we go to the park or not! What's the alternatives: Six Flags Over Mesa Verde? Halliburton drilling in Zion? I just hope there's some way of ensuring that the fees actually go for park improvements and not to buy an new chair for some fat Washington bureaucrat's oversized tush!

Compared with other things on a family vacation, the $20 or so that's charged per vehicle for 7 days in a National Park is a great deal. Often, it's the stuff that we do in addition to the park that drains my wallet. Taking a 3-hour whale-watching cruise in Bar Harbor with a family of four, for example, would take care of an entire month's worth of fees in Acadia. Of course, it's hard to see those whales from inside the park!

I have no overriding problem with fees. I happily fork over $15 a year to buy a federal Duck Stamp, which we use as our entrance ticket to some national wildlife refuges. The revenue from the sale of Duck Stamps goes into a fund from which money is drawn periodically to buy land for refuges, specifically wetlands. It's a great way to contribute directly toward conservation. But with park entrance fees it's my sense that they're being used not to bolster operating budgets that Congress cut, but as an excuse for Congress not funding the parks to the level they should be. In the longer term, they're just as likely to be precusors toward the privatization of some parks.

It's not the fees. $20 or $25 for a car full of people is nothing compared to fees for theme parks. I'm about to head to Yosemite and the $20 never factored into the decision; I usually don't even think about it until I'm near the entrance station. But I'd add another factor to your list of why national park visitation is down: the growing obesity problem in this country. An obese person is going to see even the most moderate of hikes as daunting. So they skip the parks and head for somewhere less physically challenging. Overall though, isn't it better for the parks and avid park visitors to not be so crowded?

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