Another Entrance-Fee-Free Weekend in the National Parks

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.


Who would schedule a vacation around not having to pay a $25 fee? If you're planning a trip to Yellowstone, chances are you do it far in advance and at a time that fits you and your family's schedule, not on the chance to avoid such a fee (by the way that fee also gets you into Grand Teton, and lasts an entire week). If fee-free weekends are truly responsible for increased visitation, I would propose a few explanations:

1. People have a big misconception about how much it costs to get into a national park (that is, almost nothing). When they get there, they may be surprised to learn that they are not saving much money at all (which may delight or disappoint them), and may also be surprised to learn that while there is no fee to get in, their campsite is not free.

2. Locals account for increased visitation. I.e., I probably won't plan a major trip around being able to save a small amount of money, but if I live close to the park, I may go that weekend because it's free. If this is true, there should be more increased visitation on these weekends for units that are close to larger populations (i.e., Cuyahoga Valley) and less for those without (i.e., Kobuk Valley).

But I'm not sure. How is the park service "marketing" these free weekends? Just via their web site? How many people really know about them?

Also, I'd note that NPS units are not at all advertized. If we wanted more visitation, think if they actively advertized parks and units in magazines, travel sites, etc... Now I am not saying they should do this, but you never see commercials encouraging you to visit a park. Is this a good thing? May be a good article topic. This is even more true for national wildlife refuges. The trend I have noticed is usually that unless you have directions, you won't know how to get there and there are no signs until you reach the entrance. Of course they're not primarily designated for visitation, but I find this a little perplexing since some of them do offer nice experiences for visitors.

I have NO problem w/ paying the entrance fees. I feel that this is an investment in the greater good of my country, my land and my fellow Americans. The National Parks are not just the crown jewel in our living legacy and a gift we give not just ourselves but our children, it is also a business and needs to be treated as such. We pay fees for entertainment and theme parks so fees also need to be implmented in all parks w/ a tendency in revenue spending towards marketing which would put them into competition w/ the other avenues of relaxation.

bob moore

I agree with Mike. Twenty five bucks is not going to make or break anyone's vacation. Increase in visitation is going to come from locals who, frankly, are just going to add to congestion and not contribute a dime. They are not going to camp, rent a room, buy souvenirs, buy food or gas or anything else (inside or outside of the park). Parks are underfunded as it is. Doing away with entrance fees is not the answer. Entrance stations and fees are part of what puts parks on another plain from BLM and National Forest lands. They make people stop and think about how they are entering a special place. For eighty bucks you can buy an unlimited pass good for twelve months at all federal fee areas! In today's economy that is one heck of a bargain.
No one likes to pay anything for anything, but these fees make sense. If these fees were gone, how would they make up the difference? General fund? Already strapped. I could see a day where the suggestion would be made to allow hunting (with tags and fees). Heck, guns are now going to be allowed anyway. Plus we have over populations of elk in parks like Rocky Mountain and Teddy Roosevelt. The distinction between parks and forest would soon disappear. I would hate to see the day where hunters became the only voice of conservation in our National Parks in the same manner as they have in our forests, because they "are the only ones paying". An example of that is where song bird habitat is not a priority because no one hunts songbirds. (Not that hunters have been a bad voice of conservation....they were among the first and strongest such voices....but they should not be the only such voices, especially not in our parks, which are supposed to be different.) Keep the fees and allow those who actually use our parks; families, seniors, children, wildlife and bird watchers, photographers and researchers....those for whom parks were designed....have the strongest voice in their conservation.

My wife just read my comments above and wanted to add the following:
When you don't charge for something you are telling people that it has no value. That is why you can instantly tell the difference when you enter a National Park and leave BLM or forest land. Instantly there is less trash, graffiti etc. Instantly people have more respect for a sense of place.
I think I agree with that.

Triple or quadruple the fees I say! Where else can you go and enjoy millions of acres of the best scenic land in America for $25?

I seem to agree with all of these comments. Keep the fees or even go up if necessary. When I was a kid I was lucky to have been to a lot of our National Parks thanks to my dad being a Bird Colonel in the US Army that gave my family the opportunity to travel a lot. That experience and those memories were something else. Back in 1960, or close to it, my dad took us to a parade in Frankfurt Germany, where we lived, to see a parade with President Kennedy in his black limo. A secret service agent actually picked me up and carried me over to the limo and let me give my American Flag to the President, that I will never forget. Ill have to find the picture of that because no one believes me when I tell that story. Anyway, now that Im older and pay more attention to the news, all the bad things like crooked politics, companies, crime and the economy seem to make me not think about all the great stuff we have. Im from New England and get to Acadia National Park, and the Cape Code National Seashore quite a bit. When we travel out of New England we try to see a National Park at least for a day if not more. The thing is that when you go to these places your way of thinking seems to change, you thing about how great this country is and how lucky we are to have what we have. My wife thinks Im soft in the head but I become that kid again.
So keep the fees and even increase them if necessary to keep what we have and even add to it. Happy travels.

I live in National Park heaven--close to Colorado National Monument, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Dinosaur, Rocky Mountain, Arches, and Canyonlands. Am I going to a national park this weekend? No. Does the fee-free weekend seem like a good idea? Yes. During most of my kids' lives, I've been too poor to take them anywhere, and an entrance free reduction does make a difference. I just think that few people know about it. In reality, I'm too poor to drive to the parks, let alone enter them.

Made me smile on Twitter this morning...

From AlaskaCenters: "A NPS fee-free weekend (7/18-19) is like fat-free ice cream... but better. The whole family can enjoy it, but it lasts a lot longer."

$25 isn't going to persuade me to come to a National Park. I'm going either way, and I'll plan around when I have free time. If the local hotels were giving away free reservations, then I might think about it. Throw in free airline tickets and I'm as good as there. But $25? That's a bargain already. Give it to me for free and I feel like I'm not doing my part.

not everyone is made of money!! They should be free all the time!! dont we pay enough in taxes already? I have limited income and a family to support, we enjoy the parks also and it shouldn't only be for people with money.

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My family and I are slowly working our way through the National Parks, enjoying the unique and beautiful nature of each. We bought an annual parks pass and while it doesn't alleviate all the fees associated with enjoying a park (tour fees, camping fees, etc) we feel that the fee price is paltry when compared to the vast benefits we gain in each and every park. Even though National Parks do change and evolve (Yellowstone Park of 1970 is not the same Yellowstone Park of today), the changes are necessary to keep the park system open, operating, and visitor friendly. We are a military family so have been able to enjoy National Parks all over the country, including Alaska. When we pull up roots and move to our next duty location, we pull out the US map and plot our driving route around the National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and National Monuments. For us, it is worth every penny to introduce our children to the wonders of volcanic craters, the smell of geysers, the sound of waterfalls, the beauty of pristine mountains, rain forests, and grassy prairies, and the wildlife you may see nowhere else in the world. And, we know that in every park, we will encounter a similar set of values and programs: Junior Ranger programs, fireside lectures, informed and knowledgeable park rangers, maintained trails, roads, and facilities, and more. However, even though we have 4 kids who all love to get souvenirs, we don't visit the parks to "buy" - we visit the parks to see the park. Getting rid of the entrance fee is, in my opinion, not a good business practice. The National Park service is a government agency, subject to political agendas and cost-cutting initiatives; even in the best of private businesses it is extraordinarily difficult to get the money back once you've given it up. Since when is the National Park service in the business of making sure the local outfitters make money? The National Park system is held in trust for it's citizens by the federal government; if the park system is unable to generate it's own income based on fees, will the federal government then feel compelled to privatize the parks to "make ends meet"? We take every opportunity to visit the nearest National Park and would pay ten times the fee just to make sure we our children have great National Parks to visit with their children.

why do you need to charge for nature in the first place? this land was here before us and now its property of someone. entrance fees are ridiculous in my eyes. i want to enjoy whats out there. money ruins that for me.

nature doesnt ask for our money. it wants us to enjoy whats their and take in more than words will ever be able to describe, its a feeling a lot of you will never understand. asking for money to see something that was there before you thats now property of someone is ridiculous. i live in boulder and they have these fees to go on certain trails or certain areas you cant walk on because its being preserved, but yet you can walk on them if you have a pass. the people of this world makes up rules that really have no point. its all about money, money, money...

Some interesting chat. I am grateful to have had the opportunities to visit several of our National Parks.

My dad who is over 80 has enjoyed his "senior pass" for 10-15 years. I believe the yearly pass, which allows a person or their significant other, and a carload of their closest friends access to ANY of the National Parks, is the best bargain available from the Government.

I also applaud the "generosity" mentality. These places are amazing and can still the busiest of minds, allowing one to reconnect with what matters in life.

Well let me say this $25 may be a bargain to some people but it isn't for everyone. Every park has a donation box so those who think the entrance fee should be more can donate that extra money. The parks are for everyone to enjoy and the entrance fees are actually a paltry sum compared to the whole park budget (a little over 1%). No park is going to go "broke" without the entrance fees. If more funding is needed that can be added to the overall budget. The parks should not be priced out of reach of average people just so wealthy tourists can enjoy them with less congestion. There is a park within an hour of me that I've never been to because of the high entrance fee. Who does that benefit? The mission of the park is to serve the public, if the public can't afford to go there then the mission fails. Finally it is not the entrance fee that keeps parks clean, the reason the National parks are cleaner than other federal and state parks is because they have more workers that go around and pick up trash etc, not because the visitors don't litter.