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