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Entrance Fee Hikes: Time to Say No?


    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.
Passart2_copy    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.
Passart1_copy_2    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.


Entry fees for the parks were introduced as a way of generating funds that would directly contribute to the visitor experience. It was begun with the best of intentions and has been twisted and convoluted into a money beast. Fee Demo funds have escalated to the tens of millions in some parks and are referred to as "soft money". Along with puppet non profit organizations the Park Service looks much like a political party (Democrat or doesn't matter) Both parties have contributed to this system and NPS leadership has embraced it. Flat budgets and dwindling funds are better described as smoke and mirrors. Some parks spending (Base budgets and Project funds) has more than doubled in the last ten years.

MS Kennedy, your comments are well taken. However, under Bush's environmental policies it's strictly scorch earth. I can remember when President Kennedy was in office, he helped to stimulate physical fittest programs...remember those 50 mile certicate walks? Under this present "selected" President, he advocates nothing of the sort...except more bodies for the sickening Iraq war.

Perhaps ecology/environment/personal responsibility for public lands should be taught in all public schools? Seems like kids are ALWAYS turned on by being introduced to just about ANYTHING outdoors, if given the opportunity. Maybe also some kind of Vista-type program for the environment rather than urban areas? Wouldn't it be great if there was a universal draft-for-the-environment?

If longterm is working community-by-community issue by issue against classism in society (all while linking each issue to the larger problem), I think in the short term that there are solutions that would begin to eliminate class while at the very least not doing any worse ecologically by crown jewel parks. We could insist that anyone passing through the gates be educated about the place they are going at, before, or just after they enter the gates. In a Hawaii state park near delicate coral on Oahu, the state requires all people before entry to look at an educational video. People grumble about standing in line, and yet they do so anyhow. In the end, I'd prefer this not be brought about by the Park Service but at the grassroots level -- however, we are not there yet. Money shouldn't be the determining ecological control on whether some humans see the parks while others don't. Many of the parks, as constituted, could support 10 times the number of people in them if people weren't so ignorant, thoughtless, and disrespectful.

OK, Jim, I'm convinced and I agree that this is a class-based debate. I say that I will pay reasonable fees because I CAN pay some fees NOW, but I see those fees rising all the time and understand that I am being cut off from public lands because of lack of money. So what is the solution here? Only the rich should enjoy our crown jewel parks because they can afford to pay the fees? Or should those crown jewel fees go to support other not-so-crown-jewel parks that are more accessible to the rest of us? Or should some of our national tax dollars be dedicated to making ALL national parks, monuments and lands as accessible as possible to as many folks as possible? Seems like back in the 70's when I began my wanderings public lands were very open and affordable for me -- a sometime-gainfully employed destitute part-time student. I'm not that elevated in class-status nowadays, but really can't afford too many visits anymore. Yeah, there are other places and believe me, I've found lots of them. But they are definately not "crown jewel" status. Is this country willing to admit that taxes really DO pay for worthwhile things -- even if intangible, as Jim describes?

Most poor people will never see one of grand jewel national parks. I've been lucky in my life, and even then, though I planned for instance every year to go to Yellowstone between 1998-2005, I could not possibly scrape the money or the time to go back. And, despite years of debt, one year of unsteady work that at a couple times bordered on homelessness, I could hardly be considered even indicative of most poor if only because I didn't have a family to support, much of the time had access to a reliable vehicle, and even for some of that time paid vacations. Much of the debate about user fees in parks occurs, I think, between the middle and the upper class. Actually, because access to crown jewel parks has historically and is currently mostly for middle and upper class people, almost all the debate is on that class playing field. So, Matt will assume that we support user fees for basic public services like utilities, subways, etc. because at the urban level, user fees are a way of life that help keep a dividing line between middle and lower class people. There seems to be a presumption that an audience talking about parks must come from a middle class perspective, and where a user fee seems acceptable to the average middle class person in one instance, it should seem acceptable in the other. I know a lot of people in DC who won't take buses for reasons that amount to racism and classism; at a step higher, they won't take the subway. But, many who take the subway won't take the bus, and fees are higher for the subway. Where we are on the class ladder and who we are leaving out and whether we can afford something and what is gained by keeping out those who can't will often determine what a person thinks about user fees, whether for right or wrong. What is "reasonable" in one instance for one person is hardly so for another in another circumstance. The state park fees won't work for yet another class of people. Some can't even afford the $1.25 for a bus fare in my city. I remember talking with one homeless man by the Canadian Embassy; he was hoping to have a day on the town that day because he had enough money to ride on the subway. It was a burden for him to go anywhere even when he had the money because it meant leaving all his worldly possessions behind or finding a way to haul most of them. Now, we see in this area that corporations are attempting to privatize interstate highways and pay for new lanes by charging user fees so that people could opt in to the high occupancy vehicle lanes. This is a class-based solution to a community problem. That's really what user fees in the parks are. That's actually what the parks as constituted are; i.e., a place for "use" by a certain type of person - the mythical "the people", who have never meant "all people," (and even if they did, the anthropocentrism of the point of view still wreaks). But, of course, if you somehow decided that everyone must be able to see every crown jewel park, you'd run them over more than they already are; that's if the economy didn't collapse from the cost of such a subsidy program. The way to combat this is to deal with environmental and class issues everywhere. If people have access to basic services everywhere, if people care about the land everywhere, if people cut down on consumption and exploitation everywhere, the park won't need to be the place where people go to get away from consumption (while all the while consuming more ... just to get there and to stay there) but will again be the special place that is there for those who are drawn to it by nature (and not simply because they have both the economic privilege to go as well as a lack of other places to visit). People won't avoid going to crown jewel parks, then, because of class reasons but because there is much more in their local worlds to draw them in. They won't need to go off to the woods a thousand miles away to ease their spiritual crisis - their spirit will resonate for most in their communities. In my years in Yellowstone, I never met a higher concentration of people who seemed to be searching for something, alienated by life - philosophers, artists, writers, drifters of all kinds (perhaps, ironically, the internet is a place similar to Yellowstone in this very regard). That's a result of this process. So, I firmly believe the best way to preserve parks is to destroy what creates the need to preserve and protect them in the first place. Where we tell beings that they deserve to have only what they themselves can pay for, we will only continue the social disintegration. User fees in parks and elsewhere for services in common to us all only serve to further stratify society and keep us separated not only from nature and from each other, but from reaching the fullest potential of ourselves. I'm hardly an idealist, but I'm not willing to settle for the mediocrity sold to us by this class-based system. Cheers, Jim

Hey, I'm one of the "poor" folk you mention. I can't afford $15/20 night camping fees, much less $100/200/night for a hotel room. I splurged last fall and went to Yosemite for 3 days -- camped every night, paid $20/night plus reservation fee plus entrance fee. Campground crowded and falling apart. Park personel obviously harried and overworked,though pretty darn pleasant and helpful in spite of obvious understaffing. This was a once-in-a-lifetime investment for me. Heck, I can stay in Oregon State Parks for $12-16/day, much better facilities including free showers, garbage pick-up, great hiking trails and friendly and knowleadgable park personnel.... The difference? The state of Oregon funds its parks through taxes and the lottery. They don't expect user fees to support the entire enterprise. And we shouldn't expect the National Parks to be funded solely or even mainly by user fees. I am happy to pay REASONABLE fees, not a month's rent for a 4-day vacation.

Matt, Why is public transportation "subsidized" but highway projects are "funded"? You pay only a fraction of the total cost for you to drive your car. Glenn, I'm with you. And some rooms at Crater Lake go for over 200 a night. Who can afford three nights there? That's my rent for a month.

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