Well, this coming weekend is the second of three set aside this summer for the National Park Service to forgo entrance fees. What impact is it having?
So far, the Park Service's Washington, D.C., office has been reluctant to discuss visitation trends, saying it has largely anecdotal information from the first fee-free weekend during the Father's Day Weekend last month and so will demur on commenting.
What we do know, though, is that Mammoth Cave National Park experienced a 28 percent surge in visitors that weekend, that Yellowstone National Park had a record-setting June overall, that visitation to Great Smoky Mountains National Park -- which doesn't charge an entrance fee, by the way -- was up some 11 percent in June, and that there also were (anecdotally) relatively big numbers seen at Crater Lake National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park. But supposedly traffic was down at Arches National Park.
Certainly, one can't draw trends from just that small handful of parks. But look where they're located -- the Pacific Northwest, the northern Rockies, the Mid-Atlantic, the Southwest. The upswing was noticed across the system, at destination parks such as Yellowstone, and backyard parks, such as Great Smoky Mountains.
Hopefully the National Park Service will be more forthcoming with numbers so trends can be determined. A key question that needs to be answered is whether entrance fees are detrimental to visitation. If the numbers point to that being the case, then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Jon Jarvis, when he's confirmed as the next National Park Service director, have some hard thinking to do in terms of entrance fees.
Now, Park Service officials have said that, on average, the park system takes in $500,000 a day in entrance fees during the high summer season. Do away with all entrance fees every day of the summer and the loss to the Park Service would be somewhere north of $30 million. That's a good chunk of change. And yet, earlier this summer Secretary Salazar's spokeswoman, Kendra Barkoff, remarked that the loss in revenue would be more than offset by an increase in park tourism, which would generate dollars for concessionaires, outfitters, tour operators, and other businesses that make their livings off of national park traffic.
Does that mean the Park Service's loss is the surrounding economy's bounty? If so, is the trade-off worth it? If the Park Service eliminated fees, and was on course to lose upwards of $50 million annually, would Congress step in to offset that loss with a larger appropriation?
As we move forward, and more information becomes available, hopefully the answers to these questions will materialize. For now, take a moment to comment on today's Reader Survey, which asks whether you mind paying entrance fees to visit your national parks.