With the summer travel season drawing near, the National Parks Conservation Association has come out in opposition to the America the Beautiful Pass, that $80 piece of plastic also known as the Interagency Pass.
Since last December I've been questioning the impact this pass -- which is intended to provide those who buy it access to all national parks as well as lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Reclamation -- will have on the park system.
Even the National Park Service is unsure how the pass could affect its revenues. And now the NPCA has added its voice to that question.
"NPCA is not yet confident that the parks will benefit financially like they did under the former National Parks Pass Program," the organization says in a position statement. "To the extent that the new Interagency Pass complicates fee collection for the parks, we do not support it.
"We encourage Congress to reconsider allowing the Park Service to sell the annual National Parks Pass for national parks. This former ($50) pass had widespread support due largely to the fact that it was considered such a good value."
As I pointed out back in February, Congressman Nick Joe Rahall intends to have his House Resources Committee look into the fee structure for public lands access. Those hearings could prove interesting, not just in light of the NPCA's announcement but due to the growing number of Western states where legislators are mounting opposition to entrance fees.
Such oversight is long overdue. Why does it cost $25 to drive into Yellowstone, but nothing to enter Great Smoky Mountains? (The short answer: the legislation that created Great Smoky demanded it be fee free). But why are retirees, many who are well off, financially, charged only $10 for a lifetime parks pass while families who are trying to juggle a mortgage, college funding, and retirement plans, charged $80 a year for the ATB?
Any hearings into the fee systems should delve not only into the financial aspect but also the philosophical aspect of the fee programs. While the Park Service has charged entrance fees at some parks from 1916, until 1996 it couldn't keep any of those revenues. After 1996, when the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program arrived, parks were allowed to keep much of the revenues, which got an added boost in 1999 when the National Parks Pass Program was born.
Those two -- Fee Demo and the Parks Pass Program -- have swelled the Park Service's coffers to the tune of $150 million a year, a huge amount of money that the agency has become addicted to in its efforts not to provide the so-called "margin of excellence" to the parks but rather to meet core operational needs in the form of road repairs, trail improvements, visitor facilities and more. True, much good is being done as I pointed out last week, but too much money seems to be flowing to projects that the government should be paying for out of a direct appropriation.
And, as the NPCA points out in its release, that's wrong.
"NPCA has been a long-standing proponent for allowing the Park Service to retain entrance fee revenue and supported the earlier Fee-Demo program for the parks," the organization says. "However, we believe that fee revenue should not be relied upon to fund core operations that should come from federal appropriations."
NPCA is not ready to swear off entrance fees, however.
"Our continued support for entrance fees is contingent upon them remaining reasonably priced for all Americans, especially those demographic groups that have not historically visited the parks," the group says. "As Park Service studies show, many ethnic groups in the United States are less likely to visit the parks due to the associated travel and entrance fee costs.
"NPCA is committed to diversity in the parks and wants to ensure that our national parks remain affordable so that all Americans may be inspired by our shared national heritage."
I think, though, an argument can be made that parks should be free for all. While Park Service officials will point out that entrance fees have been charged right from the birth of the agency, does that mean they have to continue?
There are many who would argue, and who have argued on these pages, that entrance fees are a relatively paltry sum when compared to the shear cost of going to visit a national park. And I suppose that's true.
But the national parks are held in trust by the federal government for the public good. All the public, of all walks of life, of all income levels, of all ethnic backgrounds.
Would we suddenly see a spike in park visitation if entrance fees were abolished? Perhaps not. But that's beside the point. The parks, the historic sites, the cultural sites, the battlefields, the seashores, are all part of our American heritage and should be open for all to see.
And let's not pretend the federal treasury can't afford to shoulder not just the additional $150 million a year that the parks receive through entrance fees but also the money necessary to wipe out that $8 billion backlog in park maintenance. All it takes is some committed and concerned senators and representatives.
Recent earmarks by congressfolk have added $20 million for cricket control, $283 million for dairy farmers, $100 million for the Democratic and Republican conventions and $74 million to store peanuts, just to name some of the odd-ball spending.
Where's the earmark to build solve the traffic jam on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon? Where's the earmark to provide Dinosaur National Monument with a useable visitor center? Where are the earmarks to solve the drug wars at Sequoia and other national parks in the West?
The point I'm trying to make, of course, is not that the Park Service's problems should be solved through earmarks or higher entrance fees, but rather through prudent and rational funding.