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Paying To Understand U.S. History in the National Park System


Officials at Gettysburg National Military Park are rethinking the fee structure for their new museum because it's falling far short of fiscal projections. NPS rendering.

Remember the good old days, when you could enter a national park and there was no cost to hike a trail, tour a museum, or enjoy nature? Well, those days seemingly are fleeting. In a move likely to disappoint many, the folks at Gettysburg National Military Park are thinking of charging a fee to access their museum.

Growth of fees in national parks is not new, only disappointing. Do you remember this Traveler post from June 2007?

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.

How about this one?

Thirty-five dollars for a ranger-led tour, four-hour minimum, in Big Bend National Park in Texas. Three dollars for a living history tour at Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site in Colorado. Ten dollars for an historic tour at Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma.

Three-hundred dollars for a ranger-guided tour, up to eight hours, at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia. Ten dollars for a sled dog demonstration at Denali National Park and Preserve. Thirty-five dollars for a self-guided tour at Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts.

Twelve dollars for a tour of the gun room at Springfield Armory National Historic Site.

And now Gettysburg wants to retool its fee structure with a proposal to charge you $7.50 to walk through their new National Military Park Museum. The fee is needed, officials say, because they are falling far short of their goals to cover the costs of the $103 million facility, which opened back in April.

“We’ve tried just about everything,” Gettysburg Superintendent John A. Latschar told reporters the other day. “We’re just not meeting the goals and hitting our numbers. Nothing was working, so we came to a conclusion that the best thing we could do is change the fee structure.”

As proposed that $7.50 would provide you entrance to the museum, viewing of its 22-minute video, and a walk past the Cyclorama painting.

To be sure, this facility sounds like a wonderful experience. It's said to be able to house 300,000 Civil War artifacts and about 700,000 archival documents. Of those, about 7 percent will be on display at any one time. Among those items is Robert E. Lee's camp desk.

This new fee structure is being considered because the initial one failed miserably. The museum has been charging folks $8 to watch that 22-minute film, and less than a quarter of the museum's visitors had been opting for that, according to officials. And, with the restored Cyclorama painting to be ready for viewing next month, the plan had been to charge visitors $12 to view both the video and the painting.

Now that plan is being reconsidered, as under the current fee structure the museum was on track to lose nearly $2 million a year.

The financial picture raises a number of questions.

* Did those who laid out the vision for the new museum overshoot reality? In their desire to best showcase, preserve, and explain Civil War history, did they over-estimate the paying market?

* Did anyone conduct a market study to see what the public was willing to pay?

* Could Gettysburg have survived with a little less interpretive opulence?

Beyond those questions, there's a very basic one: Should Gettysburg visitors have to pay to see these vestiges of one of the United States' most defining conflicts?

Aren't the national parks, in theory (but not in reality) paid for with our tax dollars, supposed to be our gift to ourselves and all who are curious about our nation's natural and cultural history?

The restructured fee schedule is now open for 30 days of public comment. A public workshop is set for September 18, and Gettysburg officials hope to have a final decision by September 29.


I think Beamis's comments 9/2 sum up this thread's journey rather well. The upcoming commission is about to examine an organization with an extraordinary mission. In the world of E. O.Wilson, we have a leader and thinker to match the complexity of that mission. I'm looking forward to meaningful results.

This has been a long and meandering thread that has provided a wealth of insights that I did not expect to emerge when it was first posted.

Some of the main points I've gleaned: 1) That maybe the NPS does not do enough market based research before it builds visitor related facilities or understand the tourism business well enough to price admission fees to cover their costs.

2) The way visitor counts are collected is not consistent and probably inaccurate in many individual instances.

3) That

the NPS needs to do a much better job of understanding its guests, why they do and do not visit and market mission-based experiences based on individual needs.

(thanks to the RoadRangers).

4) Many people would be willing to pay as they go for facilities and services, especially if they knew that the monies being collected were being used to sustain the individual park and not being sent to Washington, DC.

5) Parks were originally intended to be somewhat self-sustaining and that guiding principle has gradually been lost in the maze of politics and bureaucratic inertia that defines the modern NPS.

Good thread people. We'll give those duffers on that upcoming commission a run for their money when it comes to thorough and reasoned analysis of the national parks.

The NPS Public Use Statistics Office can be found at:

The counting methodology apparently varies by NPS unit and through time, but most seem to use a traffic counter multiplied by some constant (assumed average occupants per vehicle).

Here at Mount Rainier the total visitation figures are "Recreation" and "Non-Recreation" combined. I couldn't find an explanation of the latter category (as much as 30%, but sometimes zero or even negative), but presumably it includes employees, volunteers, concession workers, contractors, etc.

There is no commercial traffic allowed, so it appears the NPS inflates the numbers by essentially counting themselves. Interesting that even this way, they have reached the commonly used PR figure of 2 million/year only a few times in the past fifteen years.


Absolutely & dramatically, Olympic Nat'l Park is counting visitors multiple times. Furthermore & worse, I believe they are counting those who merely drive through at certain points, because the highway cuts through the Park.

Specifically, I recently sought out the NPS statistics page for ONP and saw they break down the visitor count by month & major 'destination' within the Park. They list "Lake Crescent" as receiving a quarter million visits a month at peak season. This is an outrageous exaggeration of what the Lake Crescent facilities could accommodate. No, the vast majority of those people are simply driving past anything & everything at Lake Crescent, using the highway to get from point A to point B.

And it gets worse. The highway that goes by Lake Crescent is virtually the only way to get from the West End of Olympic Peninsula to the East End ... were all the main lumber mills and all the log export is located ... while the great bulk of logging takes place on the West End. Since the Park is evidently using a traffic-counter on the highway to count 'visitors', they are counting logging trucks and multiple forms of business traffic, plus quite hefty portions of local residents traveling back & forth (a delightful part & circumstance of the lifestyle here).

On the Olympic Peninsula, logging trucks make 2-3 trips from west to east each workday and are in all likelihood counted as a 'visitor' 4 to 6 times each day!

I see no reason to doubt that other Parks are not likewise enthusiastically padding & spinning their visitor-count. I would not be surprised if the 'error' at ONP is a full order of magnitude. RoadRanger's figure of 50 million could be twice too high.

If any are interested, I will find & post the link to the NPS stats page again, but I have to get off to work now.

Re Kurt's comments on the 275 million or so visitors in the parks last year. Those who support fees as a means of significant funds for park budgets need to keep in mind that this figure counts visits, not visitors. Does the NPS have any idea how many individuals made multiple recreation visits to parks last year? I'd say we probably have more like 50 million Americans that make at least one visit to a national park in any given year. That figure may be high, I simply don't know. When you run these smaller numbers with the $2.4 billion budget, that American the Beautiful pass at $80 is beyond reasonable.

I believe this is a valuable way to measure interest in parks, potential constituency, etc. Urban parks with significant recreation components - C&O Canal, Chattahoochee River, Timucuan, Golden Gate, Gateway, etc. - could easily have thousands of visitors who make 200-300 or more visits to a park in a year. In the last twenty years, several of our smaller historic parks in urban and suburban settings have watched the primary reason for visiting the place shift from "history" to "recreation." That translates into a huge increase in multiple annual visits by a small group of individuals. I'd like to know the impact of this shift on Gettysburg's usage. I suspect it is growing, but will be tempered by an increase in use - and an improved revenue stream - when the buffs visit during the CW Sesquicentennial.

This Libertarian approach equates the National Park System with your local Wal-Mart or Wall Street enterprise, and it never was intended to be.

I must respectfully disagree. (And may I ask that you use the small-l "libertarian" here to distinguish between the political party and the philosophy?). The libertarian philosophy of land management does not advocate managing parks for the profit of shareholders or a private family. Rather, libertarian philosophy advocates cutting political influence and encourages park management to be self-sufficient and self-sustaining; historically, at least one national park was meant to be self-sustaining. In 1914, William Steele, "father" and superintendent of Crater Lake National Park, wrote:

The frequent changes of administration in this Government, together with the unsatisfactory condition in which the national park service is left by Congress, are so pronounced that capitalists are unwilling to advance funds on park concessions in amounts adequate to their needs. . . . Under such conditions it seems to me imperative that the General government acquire possession of all hotels and other permanent improvements of a private nature within the parks. . . . This would be an important step toward making the parks self-sustaining, which they should be. With the road system completed, this revenue, together with that received from automobiles, would make the Crater Lake Park self-sustaining from the start . . .

Of course, Will Steele, was a bit of a development nut. He advocated a road inside the Crater Lake caldera and a road up Wizard Island as well as a parking lot on top of Mt. Scott, so . . .

But my larger point is that at the early 20th century, the overall goal seemed to emphasize a self-sustaining nature of national parks:

Roosevelt's Bureau of the Budget in 1935 instructed the Service to develop a fee structure for all the national parks and the national monuments as well, the object being to make the National Park System more nearly self-sustaining.

I've seen historical evidence in the other parks I've worked that parks were originally intended to be self-sustaining, although I do not have access to those resources. So, I don't think that the claim that parks should be dependent on federal funding holds much historical weight.

Two words: Corporate Sponsorship. Anyone been to a sports stadium lately? Who wouldn't want to visit the "Frito Lay National Military Park at Gettysburg"? Or perhaps "General Motors National Park"? (It's in Maine. The tallest mountain there is already named for a GM brand.)

-Kirby.....Lansing, MI

Sounds good Frank....until you work the economies of scale, no? You're not talking about one or two locations, a city zoo here, or an art museum there.

At last count there were 391 units of the park system (and countless more in the incubation chamber we call Congress). The Park Service's annual budget, at last tally, was around $2.4 billion/year. There were roughly 275 million visitors to the parks last year.

A rough estimation -- and correct my math, please, if necessary -- is that each of those 275 million visitors would have to pay around $875 a year to meet that $2.4 billion. We're not just talking adults, either; we're talking teens, tweens, and toddlers. Family of six? That'd be $5,250 for your annual parks membership. Kinda makes that $80 America the Beautiful Pass seem downright reasonable, doesn't it?

And then, of course, there are the parks that don't have large visitations and yet still have to pay the bills year-round for their infrastructure. How do they pay the bills? Or do you sell them off? If so, to whom? Who would want them if they can't be self-sufficient? Mining and logging companies perhaps, or gateway communities.

Sure, I suppose you could have federal taxes pay part, but not all, the bills, but how do you come up with that formula?

Part of the problem I see is that if you start charging folks not just to come through the entrance gate and to pitch a tent but also to hike this trail or that trail, to paddle on that lake or down that river, or pay a membership fee, ala the local country club, you are indeed going to create an elitist preserve. It's going to be so elitist, in fact, with the dropoff in visitation, that the parks decommissoning commission will be back in a heartbeat.

This Libertarian approach equates the National Park System with your local Wal-Mart or Wall Street enterprise, and it never was intended to be.

I would much rather see Congress bite the bullet and adequately fund the parks. How they do it in the end is up to them. Put all the money in the appropriations bill, create endowment funds that individuals and corporate partners could contribute to, start a national lottery with ticket sales going to the parks for five years, and then the interstate highways for five years, and on and on, whatever.

The problems I see with charging more and more and bigger and bigger fees to fund the parks is 1) it's never going to be equitable across the 391-unit board, 2) it puts the parks out of reach for a larger and larger segment of the population and, 3) the resultant decline in visitation will force those fees to grow at a more and more rapid pace.

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