Like a slow trickle of water pounding on your forehead, the pace of entrance fee hikes throughout the national park system is growing increasingly painful.
Of course, many reached for the aspirin bottle back in December when the Interior Department broke the news that the beloved $50 National Parks Pass was being supplanted by the $80 America the Beautiful, National Parks and Federal Lands Recreation Pass.
Since that piece of plastic was forced upon us, there's been a steady stream of press clippings announcing either done deals on entrance fee hikes or detailing proposed fee hikes. And, surprisingly, there have been a handful of editorials opposing the increases! For instance, the Visalia Times-Delta had this to say about a planned hike from $20 to $25 for daily entry to Sequoia/Kings Canyon national parks:
An admission price of $25 per car is close to shutting out the poorer families of our area, especially in these times. And if the cost of viewing these natural wonders in our parks deters even a single family from enjoying them, that is counterproductive to what the park service's mission should be.
The Miami New Times was even more direct in its opposition to a proposed doubling of the $10 fee for driving into Everglades, saying that in the face of declining visitation the Park Service seems intent on making "it harder for people to visit..."
Of course, way back in January a congressman, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, called for a halt to the fee increase specifically planned for Crater Lake National Park and for those in general across the park system.
“It doesn’t make sense to increase park fees while national parks are struggling to attract visitors,” DeFazio said at the time. “I am concerned that the increase in fees at Crater Lake will discourage regular visits by Oregon families."
As for the rest of the national park system, the congressman believes funding solutions need to come from the federal government, not from visitors.
"I agree that the national park system is in need of additional funding, but raising fees for park visitors will only drive visitors away. Instead, the Department of the Interior should raise the money it needs to improve the park system by collecting the royalties that oil companies owe the United States,” he says.
Can we expect a respite from these proposed increases? Not in the near future or without congressional intervention. This stream of fee increases has been in the works for a while as the Park Service, I've been told, "is trying to establish a consistent, across-the-board fee structure composed of four tiers. Most parks have not increased fees since 1997."
Here's some additional background to what's transpiring:
The goal of the new pricing structure is to have entrance fees support NPS goals, be consistent, simple to administer and adjust with inflation while providing the public with a pricing structure that is fair, equitable and easy to understand. The model has four pricing categories based primarily on the legislative designation of the site: National Monument, National Historic Site, large destination National Parks and other National Parks. The consistent pricing points were based on services provided and the similarity of resources.
Now, during FY06 I understand 23 NPS units boosted their entrance fees to mesh with the new fee structure. During this fiscal year another 11-13 are scheduled to implement the new pricing, and in FY 2008 the bulk of the park units (approximately 85) will align with the fee structure model.
Any park units that haven't boosted their fees by FY09 will do it then.
Now, truth be told, I've been trying since the second week of January to get the Park Service to provide a breakdown of park units in each of those four tiers and the associated entrance fee price and, after I don't know how many emails and even some phone calls, haven't been able to garner that information.
At least not from the Park Service.
I have become aware of a spreadsheet of some proposed and enacted fee hikes for FY06, FY07, and FY08. Among the jumps planned for FY07 is a $5 bump, to $20, at Big Bend; a $5 boost, to $25, at Bryce Canyon; the aforementioned doubling at Everglades; a $5 increase at Mesa Verde, to $15; and a doubling, to $20, at Theodore Roosevelt. At Black Canyon of the Gunnison, this summer's jump to $15 is an 88 percent increase from the previous $8 fee.
Now, a sad irony of these fee increases is that the Park Service could actually lose money on these deals when you also factor in the America the Beautiful Pass. Let's say you go to a handful of parks a year, or go to the same one or two parks a handful of times. Well, you'd be smart to shell out the $80 for the ATB Pass rather than pay $25 each visit. And if you did that not only would the park lose that daily entrance fee, but if you bought your ATB Pass at a Forest Service or BLM office, those agencies would keep the lion's share of your $80 and the Park Service would get a pittance.
And if you bought your pass at REI or EMS or some other retail outlet, well, no one is publicly saying exactly how those revenues will be distributed.
And if all that happens, how would the Park Service be able to "support its goals"?
What's particularly distasteful about this fee onslaught, aside from the fact that our tax dollars supposedly paid/pay for the parks and that Congress and the various administrations are failing in their obligation to fully fund the Park Service, is that the legislation that started this process, the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, never really got its day in Congress.
Rather, sleight-of-hand was used to attach it as a rider to an appropriations bill and it made its way to the president's desk for signature without full consideration by the House of Representatives or even introduction into the Senate (which I understand ain't too happy about that oversight).
And justice for all? Not in this case.
So what to do? Should you just sit back, sigh heavily, and reach deeper into your wallet the next time you want to enter your favorite national park? Should you simply stop going to national parks? Or should you take some action?
Choose door No. 3.
In the House of Representatives, Congressman Nick Joe Rahall is the new chair of the House Resources Committee and earlier this year he announced his intentions to examine a number of Park Service issues, including entrance fees. So, you might voice your concerns over the fee situation at his site.
Another congressman to complain to is Rep. Raul Grijalva, who chairs the House national parks subcommittee. Just go to his website and click the bright yellow "e-mail Raul" button on the upper righthand column.
On the Senate side, contact Senator Jeff Bingaman, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight over national parks. You can reach him via this site.
Of course, you also could speak up when your favorite national park announces a proposed entrance fee increase and asks for your reaction.
Will such lobbying do any good? It surely can't hurt.