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Paying to Enjoy The Parks

A National Park Service lifeguard watches visitors; NPS Photo

A National Park Service lifeguard watches over swimmers; NPS Photo.

    How much would you pay to hike a trail in Shenandoah, or Great Smoky Mountains or Sequoia? What do you think is a reasonable fee to take a dip at Cape Cod or Cape Hatteras national seashores?
    As I pointed out earlier this month, more and more fees are being attached to things that long have been free in the parks. That swim in the Atlantic Ocean? At Cape Cod it will cost you a minimum of $3 if you walk onto a beach patrolled by a Park Service lifeguard, $15 if you drive onto the beach's parking lot.
    And, truthfully, more and more parks are charging you for the privilege to simply cross into their landscapes. Seemingly, it's only going to be a matter of time before you encounter more and more fees once inside the parks.
    Yet the trend to charge visitors, sadly, is much more prevalent at our national forests. As this story in the Gainesville Times chronicles, the Chattahoochee National Forest is truly turning into a pay-to-play enclave.
    Forest officials have turned over more and more recreational areas in the forest to private, for-profit companies that are charging folks to park their cars at trailheads and at lakes popular with swimmers. And while you can buy an annual pass to the forest for $25, beginning next year it no longer will cover these new fees, according to the newspaper.
    And what about that $80 America the Beautiful Pass, the one Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett, formerly the president of the fee-friendly Reason Foundation, calls "
a cost-effective and easy option
for those who plan to visit multiple federal recreation sites. Visitors can now
travel from a site managed by the Department of Interior to a site
managed by the Department of Agriculture without getting a different
    That's right, you won't have to get a different pass. But after spending $80 on this "cost-effective and easy option" to enjoy your public lands, you'll have to dig deeper in your pocket at more and more locations to actually get out of your car and into the landscape.

    With this distressing trend, how long will it be before we stop calling parks, forests and other federal recreational areas "public lands"?


I recently got one of the new National Passes. Happy to pay $80 toward the parks. For years I've paid parking fees, etc. at climbing spots, hiking parking, etc.

The interesting thing is my new national pass doesn't work at Federal sites in Colorado (the state I'm currently visiting). 3rd party "concessioners" are operating the bulk of the National Forest sites I'm trying to visit, they know nothing about the pass, and they all want additional fees. One worker went so far as to tell me the pass only gets 50% off. I showed him the information pamphlet given to me by the Forest Service folks who sold me my pass, and he wanted nothing to do with it.

Reading through prior comments I know there's a lot of debate. I'm skipping past all of it, to ask a simple thing. Can we get an explanation of what the new pass really offers? It's vague and cloudy to say the least. The regional Forest Service offices I've called declined to give me an answer, as I identified myself as a travel writer for several magazines (which I am). What I know is simple. Sites with Forest Service Signs are declining the pass in Colorado!

I think there should be placards below the forest service signs stating, "Under New Management" to identify non-participating sites.

Looking forward to some thoughts and insights from folks here.

Thanks for taking the time to read my comment.


I've used my share of back entrances, friends' couches, etc. to get across the country and into and through parks and around various kinds of user fees. That kind of solution can only work for a demographically narrow group of people. It's also only evidence that Titanic America has different class levels on its boat. As much fun as it is to hitchhike sometimes (one of my best experiences in life was hitchhiking to Jackson and back), meet strangers, and do this sort of thing, it's: 1) still evidence of one's own privilege (it's not for everyone; I couldn't imagine large families - especially many people of color willing or able to take the same kinds of risks around regulations to visit a park - which leads to some of the absurdities surrounding people's attitudes toward immigration, but that's another matter altogether); 2) evidence of a limited range of options (I've seen relatively wealthy people do the same thing in and around parks in order to have romantic and exciting adventures - yet, the same people can still make other choices while poorer people are told they should make do). I definitely wouldn't discourage people from traveling on the cheap and being creative; that's awesome. I just hope it wouldn't blind us, though, to owning up to our own privilege and standing against class inequity in the parks (and elsewhere). User fees for public goods are just one manifestation of that; it's a regressive burden that already exacerbates a regressive class situation. And, even if I myself can find a way around it, I should not presume that what I can do implies a general rule for everyone at large (take that Kant!)

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

I use the campgrounds in the parks when available and sleep in cheap motels in rinkydink towns between the parks I'm visiting... Why? Because I'm worth it...! Actually the best accomodations have gone something like this:

Our scene opens at the entrance gate of a major national park...

Stranger: Welcome to Goldenrock National Park...
Me: Hey, do you know where I might locate Sally Sawtooth? She and I used to work at Grand Canyon together and I think she's working here this summer.
Stranger: Yeah I know Sally from Ranger Skills class two years ago. I know she's here -- at the northside visitor center I think, but she's off fightin' fires in the National Forest this month.
Me: Aww, man, and I travelled all this way to see her. Well, and the park too of course.
Stranger: So where were you planning on staying, at Sally's?
Me: Not sure, I was gonna figure that out when I caught up with her.
Stranger: Heck, you're welcome to crash on my sofa for a night or two. Any friend of Sally's can't be all that bad. Just meet me here when I get off at 2pm and you can follow me to my cabin.
Me: That's so cool -- thanks. See you at 2... [sound of car pulling away]

-- Jon Merryman

Why anonymous? To avoid hate mail.
Yes, fees are a threat, but there are much bigger threats, like unrestrained development and environmental degradation caused by autos and fossil fuels.

"It's easy to not be bothered by increases in fees when you can pay them. Many Americans can't."
I don't know about "many", but the Americans who can't afford to pay entrance fees also can't afford $75 in gas to get to and from the nearest national park. The fee itself is inconsequential in this scenario. I don't think it's the entrance fee keeping people out as much as it is the cost of gas and lodging, especially in the parks like Crater Lake where a hotel room (in a hotel tax payers spent $17 million to rebuild) goes for up to $260 a night.

And there are plenty of ways for poor folk, like myself, to avoid paying fees if they can afford the gas to get to a park: 1. Enter after the fee booth has closed or before it has opened. Exit at the same time. 2. Enter on foot. 3. Get yourself a disability and get the Golden Access card or whatever it's called now. 4. Look up the name of an employee in the park and say you're there to visit that person. These are all sneaky ways in that should be used only by the most financially bereft.

The Park Service receives more funding per acre of land than any other conservation organization in the world. The money is misallocated toward unnecessary road maintenance, new construction, and maintaining the bloated salaries of incompetent, do-nothing managers.

If you want fee-less national parks, stop using parks' toilets, roads, pay phones, ATMs, lodges, shuttles, visitor centers, soda machines, cafeterias, and the plethora of other unnecessary development that has drastically impaired and Disney-fied our national parks and prompted recent fee increases in such parks as Crater Lake and Lava Beds.

What irks me, we the middle class sacrifice so much for this great nation: The excessive burden of taxes, the blood for Bush's war in Iraq, and the heavy laden of labor that moves this great country of ours. Are goverment rewards us with a National Parks system that's dilapidated with huge needs for infrastructure repairs, a short professional staff to maintain it, and a budget that's a pittance that bares shame...if not sever ridicule! If we the people care enough about our National Parks, let are voices be heard and vote green in the next election in 2008. We all deserve better than are present do nothing administration.

We live in different parts of the country and I'm probably expressing my disgust with the locals here. Regardless of income level, they still have cell phones, they still drive fancy cars, and I could probably pick out a half dozen other major things they waste their money on.

I would hope people who are better off would be willing to pay their fair share in taxes to support our national parks and indirectly support those who can't afford an entrance fee for whatever reason. People are generally lousy money managers. Agreed, some people are so far down on the totem pole they have nothing to cut back on, but I'd bet those same people are more worried about putting food on the table and keeping their kids in school than making a trip to the Everglades.

I see people coming into this country with absolutely nothing - don't speak the language -- a total disadvantage. Yet after a single generation their kids are attending college and doing well. Then there are others that grew up here -- speak English -- are given plenty of opportunities to make something of themselves, yet get sucked into the abyss of culture over common sense. It's completely exasperating. Yes I believe that in this country we are all in charge of our own destinies. Many are admittedly trapped or severly handicapped, while still many others opt to remain trapped by their own choices.

I've made plenty of sacrifices to be able to travel to as many parks as I want with my wife and children before they grow up too fast. A smaller house closer to work, a much smaller car, a job that's not my passion but pays the bills, no cable tv, I don't buy music - I listen to the radio, I referee high school sports to make additional income. Still think if it's important to you - you can make it happen.

-- Jon Merryman

We're now experiencing the Republican way -- lower those taxes but raise the fees. The Democrat way, at least in the past, is to lower the fees and raise the taxes. Everything costs money to maintain. People want to enjoy the parks but don't want to make the hard choices necessary to keep them up. Let's see, entrance fee for Yosemite or that Barry Bonds replica jersey? Gasoline to pay for the drive to Yellowstone, or a year's supply of cigarettes? Should I drop that soda can on the ground and let the NPS maintenance guy pick it up, or should I shove it back in my bag and leave no trace? Sadly, most people choose in favor of short-term gratification or convenience and don't think long-term or globally. We are a nation of short-sighted materialistic opportunists who for the most part don't care enough about the world that our great-grandkids will inherit. That's what we're up against, our own self-centeredness. People need to care first before they'll act.

The parks are up against a myriad of businesses, services (and scams) that Americans are made to believe they must have: cell phones (and now i-phones), text messaging, internet connections with online shopping, cable tv, sports cars, Hummers, satellite radio, a tv and pc in every room, a guest room in the house, more bathrooms than people living in the house, a riding mower because yard work is tiring and a gym membership because there's no time for exercise elsewhere, chemicals to kill clover because we've been brainwashed into believing it's a weed... the list goes on, and on, and on. This is why people don't have money to visit a park once in a while -- their wallets are being bombarded on a daily basis with convenient ways to empty them out. We're not savers, we enjoy spending. We can't say "no". We have no self control.

-- Jon Merryman


The problem with your argument is that you are making a generalization about all people who don't have means to enter the Park. From the fact that some people don't spend their money wisely, you come to the generalization that park fees might be afforded by all people if they only made different consumer choices. At least that's how I'm reading your argument...That's first of all not true of all people. Secondly, even if it were, it would still be an equity issue since people with means would still be afforded the right to make the same stupid consumer choices and afford the price and subsequent user fees for the parks. No matter what, there is an equity issue. That's why I asked you whether you believed your willingness to pay for a shortfall through user fees was a justification for everyone.

I think the user fee issue when it comes to parks is relatively lightweight because the parks have long squeezed out lower class people (except of a certain type - and they are forced into working in the parks to get in - an ironically good deal, but still a forced choice; people of means can either work or not work). When it comes to transportation costs (for instance, public transportation), health care, utilities fees (heat for instance on the Pine Ridge Reservation costs more in the winter than the entire per capita income of Lakota Indians), user fees of various kinds are already creating vast inequity discrepancies among values most people hold to be values in common. What's happening in parks, which applies more to the middle class, is squeezing people there, and we only push the inequities further when people who can afford to pay the fees do so because they can and are happy to do so. My point is that's not the only issue here, and it's not sound reasoning to raise the spending choices of some poorer people as though we are all born with equal opportunities or as though those choices always apply and are always relevant.

Finally, for those concerned about privatization, it's not at all hard to see why this is a step toward privatization, not simply because underfunding produces the impetus to say that public control isn't working, but because the park consumer has been re-defined to mean those having the means to consume. That creates a profit motive, which is best exploited by private enterprise. While that proves an efficient mechanism for those most able to afford the new reality, a lot of people are entirely left out, often through no fault and certainly no choice of their own.

(By the way, on another matter, the Yellowstone Newspaper feeds are live for anyone interested).

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

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