Earlier this week I mentioned fee creep in the national parks. In addressing the $80 America the Beautiful Pass, I wondered whether we'll see some hike in daily, weekly or annual entrance fees to parks around the nation.
After all, I noted, the ATB pass effectively raises the ceiling for national park entrance fees, since the outgoing National Parks Pass cost $50 and the new ATB pass represents a whopping 60 percent increase.
Well, officials at Zion National Park appear to be among the first in the park system to announce a hike in their entrance fees. Beginning January 1, it will cost you $25 to get into the park via the Springdale entrance, an increase of 25 percent from the current $20 fee. Those who walk or bike in also will be charged more -- $12, up from the outgoing $10 fee. Both passes are good for seven days.
Now, if you're only planning to visit Zion's Kolob Canyon section, the entrance fee increase is more than 200 percent! The old $10 fee is being replaced by the $25 charge. Of course, that pass will get you through the Springdale entrance as well, but if you're only planning to hike into the Kolob Canyons backcountry that increase seems pretty significant.
What will be interesting to see in the coming year is how Americans react to these higher fees. Are we so desensitized to increases that we'll just pony up the extra money without thinking? Will we go along with the belief held by many that the national parks continue to be an incredible bargain even under the increases? Or will visitation to national parks fall as folks decide to spend their money on other attractions?
Tomorrow I'll have the results from my latest poll question, on whether the $80 fee for the ATB pass is reasonable. Here's a sneak preview: So far nearly 75 percent of the respondents say "no."
What's just a tad disturbing is that the folks in Interior, while indicating that they're concerned about park visitation numbers, apparently ignored their own consultants when they settled on the $80 fee. According to U.S. Senator Craig Thomas, the University of Wyoming analysts who studied the proposed fee determined that most folks would balk at a fee above $70 for an annual pass.
Now, maybe the $80 sticker will indeed shock folks...to the benefit of some parks. Unless you travel a lot and plan to visit more than two or three parks, you might just forgo the America the Beautiful Pass and either pay the weekly entrance fee, which seems to be hovering around $25, or buy an annual pass to your favorite park, which will be less than the ATB pass.
Those trends possibly could help individual parks when the day arrives that all revenues from ATB sales are pooled in Washington and doled out to parks, forests, BLM lands and other public land agencies under a formula yet to be devised.
But what about those who believe entrance to national parks should be free? What would happen if that came about?
Scott Silver, executive director of Wild Wilderness, has compiled some interesting data that indicate visitation would go up. For instance, he points out, when entrance fees to California state parks went down, visitation went up. When Washington State instituted parking fees at its state parks, visitation went down. The Canadian government also has concluded that parking meters in their provincial parks are responsible for reduced visitation.
Lastly, Scott refers to a story from England about the elimination of museum entrance fees and a related jump in visitation.
You can read Scott's research here.
Of course, if entrance fees to national parks were abolished and Congress didn't respond with a more generous appropriation, park conditions no doubt would suffer. So what's the solution?
Do we simply keep digging deeper and deeper into our individual pockets as Congress continues to short-change the parks and forces the Park Service to resort to higher and higher fees or more and more fees on activities that previously were free?
Or do we gamble that with no entrance fees folks would willingly donate to the parks? That's an admirable idea, but I don't think it'd generate enough money in the long run to do much good.
I don't have an answer to this problem. But I think it is a problem that deserves some serious attention and offers Mary a perfect opportunity to get the ball moving. Perhaps she already is, in that the president directed Dirk who directed Mary to begin planning for the National Park Service's centennial in 2016, a mere nine years down the pike.
Part of the planning for that gala event should entail making the park system financially sound. That seems to me to be a pretty obvious goal.
Back in October I ruminated some on the Park Service's financial plight. In that post I outlined the National Park Conservation Association's five-step program for healing the agency, pointed to the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees' suggestion that a blue-ribbon commission be named to look into how the park system can best be managed, and tossed in some of my own ideas as to how the Park Service's coffers could be bolstered.
Why revisit that post? Because I think the Park Service's financial plight is that important, and the only solution Washington seems to have is higher fees.
That's not very imaginative and, in the long run, I don't think it's the solution to preserving our national parks for today's and tomorrow's generations.