There has been, fortunately, a growing national debate over the spate of actual and proposed entrance-fee increases for national parks. Newspapers are editorializing about them, special interest groups are wading in with their views, members of the public are writing letters-to-the-editor to complain.
The rebuttal from the National Park Service headquarters in Washington is that these increases are relatively token when compared to the overall cost of getting to and enjoying a national park vacation, and there are some columnists out there who whole-heartedly agree with that sentiment.
Slightly higher user fees are unlikely to have much effect on park use, but they can have a significant effect on the quality of the park experience, writes John Krist, a senior editor and Opinion page columnist for the Ventura County Star in California. Most of that money will stay at individual parks, where it can be spent on upkeep and repairs, the sort of unglamorous expenditures that typically get shortchanged in the politically driven congressional budget process. Smaller crowds and plumbing that works what's not to like?
The problem I have with such views are largely philosophical. After all, what is the big deal with having to pay another $5 to gain entrance to a national park for a week? So what if the $25 it now costs to enter Yellowstone soon will be indexed to inflation and continue to slowly creep upwards? We're still just talking a relative pittance when compared to other recreational and amusement costs out there.
But let's move the debate beyond pure economics. Let's frame it as a question about whether "public lands" really are owned by the public and are not simply a commodity being sold to those who can pay.
Let's question what good is being served the American people if even one family is denied access to their tax dollar-supported national parks because of the boost in fees.
There has in recent months been a clamoring from some camps over the seesawing of national park visitation. Concessionaires, gateway communities, and politicians alike have been agonizing over the recent decline in park numbers.
Against this outcry, the Park Service has been backed into a corner over inadequate federal funding and is relying more and more on fees -- entrance fees and "amenity" fees -- to pay for patching roads, improving restrooms, building ranger stations, offering interpretive programs and a slew of other projects that seemingly should be paid for through the parks' operational budgets.
Things have gotten so out of hand with the agency's reliance on fees -- entrance fees alone generate roughly $150 million a year for the park system -- that there's no way it will go cold turkey on these fees unless alternative funds are available. And unless Congress is successfully lobbied that it has an obligation to fully fund the Park Service and see that all Americans have access to the parks, this trend toward requiring the taxpayers to assume more and more of the parks' funding will only grow.
As it grows, visitation likely will suffer. To be sure, there are myriad issues that affect park visitation. The costs of gasoline, airfare, lodging and meals, are probably the biggest impediments.
Too, there are more recreational options confronting Americans than there were 50 years ago. But I fear all these comparisons are cheapening the national park system. We're lumping the parks -- the Yellowstones, Yosemites, Acadias, and Grand Canyons -- right in there with Disneyland, Six Flags, Chelsea Piers and all the other pay-to-play attractions throughout the country.
The parks, while seen by gateway communities as economic engines, were not envisioned as for-profit entities. To treat them as such, do we chance lessening the beauty of morning mist as it rises off the forests in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, of the leaping cataracts that shimmer in the dense foliage of Shenandoah, or of the smashing of waves against the sea stacks of Olympic?
Will the fee creep we're witnessing -- it's not only entrance fees, but also interpretive programs being affected -- deprive a child from searching a tide pool in Acadia, from obtaining a geologic primer on the creation of the Grand Canyon, from learning about the Civil War on the very battlefields upon which it was waged, from wanting to grow up and become a ranger?
Constraining, if not totally eliminating, entrance fees and "amenity" fees won't solve all the issues surrounding the affordability of a national park visit. But such a move would make a statement that we as a nation value these natural, cultural and historic resources so greatly that we believe they should be accessible to all.
With some determination and a dedicated investment in the parks it can be done.
For instance, did you know that back in 1995 the Friends of Acadia established an endowment fund that provides more than $200,000 each and every year to help preserve and maintain the carriage paths that wind through Acadia National Park? Or that at Rocky Mountain National Park, a $1 million endowment fund created by the Rocky Mountain Nature Association helps acquire land for the park and pays for internships that bring college students into the park for projects, among other things?
Wildlife at Grand Canyon National Park benefit from an endowment fund that underwrites research and education programs, while in Alaska, the $2 million Alaska Marine Research Plan funds coastal resource projects benefiting national parks in that state.
Perhaps as the final drafts of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's report to the president on the National Park Centennial Initiative and signature projects that will commemorate the Park Service's centennial nine years from now are polished a little less attention can be paid to brick-and-mortar projects and more to an endowment for the national park system.
Hard to believe, but there currently is no such endowment. Oh, there are numerous endowments tied to specific parks, such as those cited above as well as another 20 or so that the National Park Foundation administers for specific locations, such as the Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.
But there is no overarching"National Park Endowment Fund" that could be used to offset, if not eliminate, entrance and amenity fees, or fund trail work across the park system, or eliminate the need for individual parks to choose between laying off staff or patching a roof.
If the Congress today created a $100 million endowment fund for national park system, at an annual rate of return of 8 percent, which I understand is the goal for non-profits to attain, in ten years that would grow to $215,892,500. Imagine if the fund was initially endowed with $200 million, or $500 million. The resulting interest would patch a lot of pot holes.
Now, President Bush has proposed a $3 billion program for the parks, blending taxpayer dollars with private philanthropy. Problems with that proposal, however, range from future administrations deciding not to fund the program and private giving failing to rise to the goal of $100 million a year for ten years to concerns that such philanthropy could dictate which parks get the revenues for which projects.
Really, how do you convince a charitable organization to give money for a new sewer treatment plant at Yellowstone?
Just as there is no one answer for the fluctuating visitation at national parks, there is no one solution for pulling the park system out of its financial black hole or for renewing Americans' love affair with the parks. There needs to be continued support from Congress -- the National Parks Conservation Association has estimated that current funding levels leave an $800 million shortfall each year -- passage of the proposed National Park Centennial Act would provide another revenue stream, and continued philanthropy.
A National Park Endowment Fund seems to be a natural vehicle for helping the parks not only get out of their financial struggles but, if properly funded, could provide for a comfortable future and eliminate the growing burden for Americans, who theoretically already own the parks, to continue paying for them.