By now you've heard that the departments of Interior and Agriculture have indeed made official what I told you last week:
The $50 National Parks Pass, the one that provided a direct revenue stream to the national parks, is being replaced by the $80 "America the Beautiful--National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass," one that some fear in the long run could seriously jeopardize Park Service revenues.
Washington dressed up the news with glowing comments, which isn't unusual. But is it surprising only to me that the Interior Department's comments came not from Secretary Dirk Kempthorne but from Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett? It certainly is ironic, as Ms. Scarlett's background includes a stint as president of the Reason Foundation, an organization that long has called for replacing tax-dollar support of the parks with user fees.
Now, in general I personally don't oppose reasonable entrance fees for national parks or other public lands. While I might bristle a bit at having to pay more money on top of the tax dollars that supposedly go to support these land-management agencies, I've viewed the entrance fees as an additional donation to the agencies, whose missions I value and want to support.
But this new pass threatens to upset the apple cart when it comes to the National Park Service and, in light of currently available pass programs, seems to be a well-orchestrated maneuver by the Bush administration to further starve the land-management agencies in general and, in this case, the Park Service specifically.
Am I a conspiracy theorist? Too cynical? Read on and then let me know.
Here's how Ms. Scarlett welcomed the ATB pass:
"This new interagency pass offers a cost-effective and easy option for those who plan to visit multiple federal recreation sites," she said in helping to roll out the ATB pass. "Visitors can now travel from a site managed by the Department of Interior to a site managed by the Department of Agriculture without getting a different pass."
What Ms. Scarlett seems to be forgetting is that that travel long has been possible via the Golden Eagle Passport, a $65 pass. In fact, on the back of my National Parks Pass is a small decal that transforms it into a Golden Eagle Passport and gets me into many fee areas on other public lands. Voila! One pass, good at all public lands. But $15 cheaper than the ATB pass.
While the more expensive ATB pass will continue to make these travels possible, the way its accounting is being set up it certainly makes it look as if the park system will suffer financially.
Why do I see it that way?
In part because revenues generated by ATB pass sales will go to the agency that sells the pass. Since the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management have many, many more recreational lands and entry points than the Park Service, it doesn't take much of a leap of faith to conclude that the bulk of pass sales will be conducted by those two agencies.
On top of that, some folks will balk at that $80 price tag. And the folks in Washington know that.
"As with any product, a price increase could be expected to reduce demand," Ben Simon, an economist who currently is acting assistant director of the Office of Policy Analysis for the Interior Department, said in response to questions I posed. "Thus, some reductions in sales are to be expected. This does not imply, however, that visitation will be reduced or that individuals will be 'priced out' of recreation areas. Individuals continue to be able to purchase daily entries (typically priced between $3 and $25) and site-specific annual passes (typically priced at $20-$30)."
And that likely will be the case. I can see where some folks who go to a specific park or two will simply forgo the ATB pass and buy a less expensive annual pass to their favorite park. But I won't be surprised to see some increases in the cost of those individual annual passes. After all, the ATB effectively boosts the cost of the National Parks Pass from $50 to $80, and that higher ceiling offers more room for increases in the individual park annual passes.
Now, Mr. Simon also said that many park visitors are "relatively insensitive to charges in entry fees" because they view them as a small part of the overall cost of a vacation.
"Long-time advocates are probably those individuals least sensitive to price changes," he added. "Research has also indicated that individuals are more willing to pay fees if they are assured that the fee revenue will benefit the collecting site."
Further clouding things for the Park Service's coffers is the plan to distribute revenues from "central sales" of the ATB pass, such as Internet sales and, I presume, sales through non-profits and commercial outlets such as REI and EMS, to the "agencies based on a formula that takes into account pass use at each agencies' recreation sites."
I certainly hope that formula takes into account that the Forest Service and BLM have many, many more recreation sites than does the Park Service and offsets the difference.
Now, the evolution of the ATB pass has been closely watched up in the great state of Maine by Stephanie Clement, who is the conservation director for Friends of Acadia, a non-profit that supports Acadia National Park. In February 2005 she traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify on the matter of this pass. Not only did she express concerns over pricing of the pass, but she also pointed out that revenue sharing between the five agencies involved in this pass could create problems.
"When the National Parks Pass was implemented, Bryce Canyon National Park witnessed a decline in fees collected because visitors often traveled to Zion National Park first, where they purchased the National Parks Pass," she said. "Adding other federal lands to the equation will complicate matters, particularly where a Department of Agriculture unit affects the fee revenues at an Interior Department site or vice versa. Predicting where these effects will be seen and remedying them through multi-agency pass agreements or revenue redistribution will be a difficult process, involving multiple years of data collection and experimentation with different scenarios."
I called Ms. Clement this morning to get her reaction to the ATB pass, and she reiterated many of the same concerns she shared with the U.S. Senate Comment on Energy and Natural Resources.
"My big concern, for parks in general, is this question of how many people will purchase the pass, instead of at a national park, at a Forest Service (unit) or BLM or some other place and that will result in less revenues coming to the national parks, which are already stretched," she told me. "If this pass becomes incredibly popular, and if people are buying them at national forests instead of national parks, that's not going to be a big help for the Department of Interior."
Now, a question Mr. Simon didn't directly answer is whether the new passes, which will come complete with bar coding and a magnetic strip Interior officials claim will be used only to monitor traffic patterns, is whether some day park or Forest Service or BLM entrance stations will be replaced with automated gates that will open with a swipe of this new pass.
"Eventually, the new pass may include smart-card technology," he said.
If that occurs, will we one day see fewer rangers in the parks and forests and more gates blocking access and forcing visitors to either shell out more money for their enjoyment or head elsewhere?
Two questions the Interior Department didn't answer for me were (1) Whether NPS plans to increase the number of fee areas it oversees in 2007 or 2008, and (2) whether parks that currently sell their own annual park passes will be raising the price of those passes in reaction to the $80 ATB pass.
Any bets on what will happen?
For more insight and commentary on this new pass, surf over to the blog at Wild Wilderness.