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How Much Will it Cost to Attend A Campfire Talk?


    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 .



In a related vein, see this article in the Sunday WaPo:

Only after a dozen or so folks called, Natural gas wells planned for the Chaco Canyon area was put on hold. I have found that all my state gov type folks do listen and even respond to an individuals concerns and I do not believe this distracts from the issues in any way. Getting together with family, neighbors and other concerned citizens is important. One person taking action, being out spoken and following through in all ways possible is the responsibility of every American Citizen. Remember, We The People are the government. IMHO

Jim Macdonald, I hear you and appreciate the dialogue. Sorry I can't do much about home rule in DC! JLongstreet

JLongstreet, Thanks for sharing your critique and sense of the situation. While I do believe that anyone part of a bureaucratic hierarchy will ultimately prop it up, even where they have no decision-making power, simply by participating in it, I also recognize the point you are trying to make about the specifics of the NPS user fee issue and why the source is in policy coming from my fair city. If you gave the residents of this city a chance, we'd drive most of them out of here! (*laugh*) But, I guess that's why, say in terms of the colonialism that affects DC, that we can't. We live here, suffer under the burden of the federal government (they say we have Home Rule, but that's only very partially true), and yet have no say in what the federal government does to us. That decision belongs only to the Congress. Yet, though they are local to us, though we are local, we cannot seem to do anything about it (short of the one House vote shenanigans that are currently playing out, and that is highly unlikely to happen). The reason we cannot (and this goes far beyond a vote, anyhow) is because the congressional bureaucracy is insulated and expands across the entire country scattered across 435 congressional districts and 50 states. People who have no stake in us (just as they didn't in Iraq) don't care and do nothing for us, having their own local concerns, their own sense of being powerless, especially when they are just one voice in a system scattered in so many directions. So, I agree with you about the problem of user fees, the sense that the problem is elsewhere, the sense that people (even people of some power as yourself) cannot really do anything about it (just as our mayor can't wrest us from federal control and ends up enforcing federal demands on the city). User fees are localized problems with a national genesis; one person's issue isn't going to work in someone else's context. I also agree that people need to see the problem outside the local. What I have trouble with, though, is the sense that we can do much about it simply by appealing and organizing at a national level. That doesn't speak to what you are saying but to what others are saying or what I commonly read all over the internet. While local organizing on local issues is not enough, since people at that level must recognize the larger implications, the global connections, and the inter-relatedness of issues, it still has to be where it starts, no matter our job, no matter where we are in life. Perhaps, your way of helping is to throw out your insight into the cause of the user fee situation on public lands for organizers to use. All I'm suggesting is that people serious about activism on this issue need to meet in their towns, about this issue, and about the larger implications of it (single issue advocacy like advocacy of the DC vote won't get you anywhere unless you have big dollars). And, so, I hope that instead of working with Congress to change the bureaucratic mentality, that individuals will organize educational events in their home towns, connect this national issue with the plight of other people suffering under different kinds of user fees in their localities, connect that at a higher level to what is being done in other parts of the world, especially the Global South, and see the value at stake isn't that it costs you more to vacation, but that the ideas behind this actually cause real suffering in other circumstances. That could lead to demonstrating at the gates of your park, and a new challenge to you - hopefully a welcome challenge. Anyhow, it may sound almost dreamy, but people like me do this sort of organizing on other sorts of issues all the time. It's interesting that so few participate in that kind of organizing, and yet I hope it can be inspiring.

I'm not suggesting superintendents are victims. Every one I know would accept responsibility for the decisions he or she made. And yes, some, indeed, did jump on the fee program aggressively since (1) parks are desperate for operating money even after making lots of cuts and improving efficiencies, and (2) Congress did pass a law which established the parameters of a fee program. (Whether or not any of us like it.) Realize, however, that the "decision space" for most superintendents has been severely constrained. My point, simply, is that the Washington office of the NPS has made this a mess by: (1) Establishing no standards for user fees, allowing the kind of very high fees at Roosevelt-Vanderbilt if there isn't much pushback from the public; (2) Pulling out the rug from other parks where there was any pushback on user fees at all, without any evaluation as to whether or not they were reasonable; (3) And very late in the game, establishing an arbitrary national schedule for the entrance fees and allowing local parks absolutely no flexibility at all on THOSE fees. The only good news is that small parks keep 100% of the revenue and are required to put it all into visitor services. So there will be some benefit, at least at those parks, even if we agree that it would be better if Congress fully funded the parks. JLongstreet, park superintendent

Unfortunately, JLongstreet, we as individuals are local and not national, and so the beginning of any response must be organized locally (even if we acknowledge that it is national - heck, I'd argue it's bigger than that - I don't believe that user fees are really the issue of concern so much as what they themselves represent; to me this is in fact a global issue, a pattern seen in countries all over the world where user fees almost always equate to more privatization). As people who live locally, not nationally or globally, we have to take responsibility, especially those of us who have not managed to hamstring ourselves into impotence. And, if a park superintendent is impotent to deal with government; I wonder again what hope there is for those of us who think we can equate activism by trying to exert a tiny bit of influence on one member of Congress. "Think global; act local" is kind of a cliche, but like it or not, that is the physics of our influence. Ultimately, the superintendents who are hamstrung will have to decide if dealing with local rabble rousers they sympathize with but cannot support at the expense of their own jobs is worth it as a career choice. Perhaps, that sounds harsh; it probably is. But, I have trouble seeing how it can be any other way.

Indeed, Gen. Longstreet, I do not doubt that is the case. However, it is common knowledge in my neck of the NPS woods that some parks have jumped on the fee bandwagon with a lot more gusto than others.

I've written this before but I'll say it again. Good park managers have been caught between a rock (legislation) and a hard place (underfunded park operations) and have been all but forced by Washington to toe the line on entrance fees and to be creative with user fees. This isn't mindless adherence at the park level to dumb rules but a minefield that most superintendents are doing their best to navigate. Blame Congress and complain to Washington but please recognize that the problem is national, not local. JLongstreet a National Park superintendent

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