Might it be too long before you'll have to pay for more than just entrance to national parks and a campsite? Perhaps that nightly campfire talk will cost $5 per person to attend. Maybe that ranger-led hike will cost $10.
Don't think it can't happen?
Look what they're proposing at the Hudson River Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a national historic site. Unless the public strongly opposes, beginning next January it will cost you $18 -- or $72 for a family of four -- to walk through FDR's home and his presidential library, a $4/person increase from the current rate.
Want to visit the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site? That fee could go up $2 to $10 per person under the proposed fee hikes. The Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site? A visit there also could cost $10 per person. Ditto for an upclose glimpse of FDR's "Top Cottage," where he entertained world leaders.
While those increases affect entrance fees, Park Service officials also want to charge you $10 for a "Behind the Scene" tour of these sites, an $8 fee to attend a "Landscape" program, and $5 per family to attend "Farm Day."
Cynics might argue that these fee increases would seem to be just the latest effort to institute a "pay to play" park system. And as those fees go up, any bets that visitation will go down?
This is how park officials justify these increases:
"Although the proposed fee increase, which is part of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act of 2004, requires public involvement, the National Park Service recognizes that the present and future welfare of its parks depends largely on public support," says a release from the superintendent of the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites. "The public will have a greater understanding of the complexities involved in managing its national treasures if they are involved in the major decisions being made."
What's disconcerting about these fees is that not only do they seem to be the tip of an increasingly large iceberg that park visitors will soon run aground on, but that the Park Service seemingly is basing a large portion of the park system's future on the pocketbooks of park visitors rather than on congressional appropriations.
David Barna, the Park Service's communications chief in Washington, tells me the additional fees being levied for the Behind the Scene tour, Landscape programs, and Farm Day once were referred to as "Interpretive fees" but now are known as "Specialty Program" fees.
"These are in parks, mostly historic sites, that have interpretive fees that are different from entrance fees," he says, adding that your $80 America the Beautiful Pass will not cover these fees and acknowledging that they "have been controversial for many years at historic sites."
The money raised through the fees, adds Mr. Barna, goes to pay for the rangers who lead the tours or conduct the programs.
While he doesn't expect the Park Service to begin charging fees for campfire talks or nature hikes, why wouldn't it if these and similar fees are quietly accepted?
Rather than a steady diet of ever-higher entrance fees and user charges, perhaps what is needed is for the president and Congress to adequately fund the park system. Perhaps superintendents, rather than signing off on ever-higher fees, should simply shut down some of these sites. That would get Congress's attention.
It was exactly a year ago, short one day, that I warned about ever increasing fees to enjoy parks that our tax dollars supposedly pay for, that the federal government supposedly holds in trust for the public good.
The 390 units of the national park system are not privately run, for-profit sites. They were never intended to operate in a mirror-image of a for-profit business. Yes, they should be professionally managed, but their budgets should be adequate and not leave them hurting.
The park system's operation is the fiduciary responsibility of the Congress. That would be the same Congress that has seen fit to spend:
* $2.3 million for "animal waste management"
* $250,000 for "asparagus technology and production"
* $6,285,000 for "wood utilization research"
* $469,000 for the National Wild Turkey Foundation
* $335,000 for "cranberry/blueberry disease and breeding in New Jersey" (Since 1985, according to CAGW, $4.3 million has been spent on this research)
* $20 million for the Bonneau Ferry in South Carolina
* $2 million to buy back the presidential yacht that President Carter sold in 1977 in the name of frugality
* $1 million to study Brown Tree Snakes in Guam
Without a backlash from the general public, how long will it be before the parks are open only to those who can afford them? Think about it. If the Park Service can levy a user fee to attend a landscaping program or to attend "Farm Day," why wouldn't it charge for a campfire talk or a nature hike?
The folks who run the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites plan to hold a public meeting on May 2 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Bellefield mansion at park headquarters on Route 9 in Hyde Park, New York.
If you can't make the meeting, either write the superintendent at Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites, 4097 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park, New York, 12538, to comment, or email your thoughts via [email protected] .