You are here

Reader Participation Day: Are Park Entrance Fees Fair?


Should we have to pay entrance fees to visit our national parks?

Earlier this summer Interior Secretary Ken Salazar designated three weekends as "entrance free" weekends in the National Park System. Anecdotally, the first of those three weekends attracted larger-than-normal turnouts to many parks. Which makes us wonder, do you mind paying entrance fees, or should they be eliminated?

This can be a thorny subject. After all, our tax dollars in theory go to support the national parks, which are held in public trust. But the parks have more needs than the Congress seems willing to pay for, and so we encounter entrance fees.

Some say those fees are no big deal, that 1) they're a minuscule part of a national park visit or 2) we shouldn't mind chipping in a little extra for the parks. But others will point to the taxes we pay and argue that entrance fees are double taxation. Yet another argument is that fees discriminate against lower income earners.

So, tell us what you think. Should the National Park Service do away with entrance fees and put out a donation box for those willing to toss the agency some extra cash?


Fee's are just another form of Taxation..The only thing sure in life is death and taxes.

This post should ask the question: Are taxes fair?

User fees are inherently fair because they are based on voluntary transactions. FrankN hit it when he showed that "[s]uggesting that entrance fees are some form of taxation is again like suggesting that lottery tickets are tax. You can choose to visit or not; you can choose to buy a ticket or not."

FrankN is also correct when her asserts that NPS funding is based on politics.

Now is the time, my fellow national park lovers, to cut political and bureaucratic chains that choke our national parks.

User fees are based on voluntary transactions, and when not incorporated with taxation, fees are the most egalitarian method of supporting parks. We must break the corporatist stranglehold and stop allowing the leviathan government to grant monopolies to enormous, multi-national corporations who pocket 97% and leave the parks with a paltry pittance.

Imagine that instead of being siphoned, much of the billions payed to government monopoly concessions (for a stay in the Ahwahnee, bottled water, or a meal) could be returned to national parks in the form of a user fee.

It works for the Tower of London and thousands of conservation trusts in America.

It can work for our national parks.

We will have to agree to disagree. What we can agree on is that funding the parks is congressional will; and that's a fight to take up with our congressperson. What we can disagree on is how strong that will would be if there were no park fees coming in. You make it sound like Congress has this huge bag of money and if the fees were not there they could just open the purse string if they wanted to. Problem is, the purse nowadays belongs to China. In today's world of health care reform, wars and bailouts Congress would be even less inclined to fund the parks (even underfund them!) if they were not bringing in money in the form of fees. The parks are not accessible to only the most affluent. They offer possibly the most affordable family vacation option.
Suggesting that entrance fees are some form of taxation is again like suggesting that lottery tickets are tax. You can choose to visit or not; you can choose to buy a ticket or not.
In today's world $25.00 for seven days (or twice that for unlimited visits for one year) is peanuts that even relatively poor people can afford. Certainly all those folks driving around Yellowstone in their 30 foot RV's and Chevy Subdivisions and diesel pickups don't bat an eye. There are discounts for seniors, and I would be happy to see the same for low income people. But right now, today, unless we have a viable alternative to these fees (that doesn't involve corporate or foreign money), I think that doing away with them would be a mistake.
We can also agree that we both love Yellowstone.


Putting user fees in place is a recipe for privatization. It's a shell game.

Congressional will is the only thing that matters for park funding in every imaginable scenario. They lack the will, and so no matter what happens given their lack of will, parks will remain underfunded. That's the net result no matter what. So, the question is, if the parks are going to be underfunded and end up in ruin, should they end up in ruin accessible only to the most affluent, or should they end up in ruin with a wider diversity of access?

The only way the parks will be funded is by congressional will, with or without user fees. The net funding will remain the same or lower; only the percentage of allocation do to one form of revenue raising will be in place. It's like if you're in Montana; you have a set budget, do you raise the money via a regressive sales tax or via a progressive income tax? Or both? We know that Montana doesn't use sales tax as a funding mechanism. The manner of taxation is a matter of fairness. The overall budget allocations are a matter of the state legislature and a function of overall revenue. You are confusing the two ideas, and so are a lot of the posters, who labor under the myth that because 80% of their user fees stay in the park in which they paid them that they are somehow contributing to the budget allocations of the park. All they are doing is paying in a particular way.

That fee, as anyone can agree upon, is a regressive tax. It's unfair. And, of course, it doesn't matter because allocation of funds is determined by Congress.

If you want parks funded, you had better change the will of Congress. As for user fees, they are unfair and don't work. That you and others are so worried about losing them only shows that the emperor doesn't actually have any clothes already. If Congress believes the parks a priority, they will fund them. If they don't, it looks like they pass the buck onto an army of users - except they don't, what you give, they take out the back side, leaving you stuck footing the bill and yet receiving nothing (except what an accountant has said your money has paid for - in response to RangerLady's claims) actually in return. If people feel good about giving real money for only nominal results, so be it for all of you. It won't make the system any more fair, and it won't actually fund the parks any more. And, when the bottom comes out, we'll be left with a Yellowstone belonging to someone else ... and it will take more drastic strategies and tactics to fight that. As long as Yellowstone is held in the public trust, as it is now, we should ensure that it actually is public and open and accessible and as fair as possible until the last flicker of a Congress governing a nation too big for it to grasp in every particular can no longer afford to hold onto the national parks. I suspect Yellowstone, for those of us who love that particular park, will be the last to go, but who knows?

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

Nobody noted that Alaska national parks that came after the 1979 act establishing them have no entrance fees by design. Most have low visitation anyways, and the cost of getting to a remote area by boat/air likely would outweigh any entrance fee that could be charged.

I do understand that no entrance fee was a condition for the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains NP. Much of this is political. The National Mall and all museums at the Smithsonian are free because of political sway. I remember when the entrance fee for Yosemite was slated to increase from $20 to $25, local businesses protested and the increase was never implemented.

Many of the fees seem to be haphazardly applied though. I can understand the highest fees ($20-25) for Grand Canyon, Zion, Yosemite, Yellowstone/Grand Teton (combined) - since they're the crown jewels. There are some places where the prices seem a bit given the lower overall visitation, such as $20-25 for Sequoia/Kings Canyon or Bryce Canyon. They're excellent places, but it seems that the highest fees are generally reserved for the highest visitation areas. On my trip last year to the Pacific NW, there seemed to be an inconsistent set of fees, with $10 at Crater Lake (where I bought my annual pass) , and $15 at Olympic and Mt Rainier. Then there are the free places, such as Redwood NP - although the California state parks have fees.

I simply get my pass. My folks both have the senior passes, which must be the best bargain I've heard of. When one lost a pass, buying another one didn't yield a second thought since it was so cheap. As for the regular public, I'm not a huge fan of the new America the Beautiful Pass. It was $50 just for access to NPS units and and additional $15 for access to other federal units (Forest Service, BLM, etc) - either with a sticker or buying a complete $65 pass. Back in 2006-7 I was about to get my pass in Dec 2006 when I fell ill and had to delay my trip until Feb 2007; I probably could have purchased the National Parks Pass at a local NPS unit, but didn't. I did end up getting that pass for $80, but I never used it at anything other than NPS units. Even with that, the option for the sticker ($50+15) was less than the later $80 charge. Now for my last pass, I did use it for one Forest Service entrance fee, but I find those visits few and far between.

So the logic is: Since parks are so dependant on fees, if those fees dry up there is a risk of privatization. So it follows, therefore, to avoid privatization by doing away with the fees!!??
If my wife and I are planning to go to Europe and we intend to use interest money from a savings account or bond to pay for the trip, and then my wife loses her job, are we more or less likely to go on that trip? The trip money is still there. The job money was being used for other things. So why not? Because a loss of income is a loss of income. Is Congress more or less likely to fund parks if parks are no longer a "cash cow"? Is privatization more or less likely to occur if parks are not generating at least some of their own income? Eighty percent of an America the Beautiful pass sold at Yellowstone stays in Yellowstone. I have not seen any evidence to dispute that claim. Now, does that mean that Yellowstone recieves less funding? Probably. But does it mean that Yellowstone would get that money anyway? Probably not. Not with a Federal Government strapped with eleven trillion dollars in public debt. Of course user fees are factored into the equation of park funding; that is how the system works. I'm sure that is exactly how fees were proposed: Let's let actual users of the parks pick up a small piece of the pie, so that we can release taxpayer funds that would otherwise be going to parks for other purposes. Makes perfect sense. The point is that the parks are, at least in part, paying their own way. It doesn't matter if all the money is thrown into one big kiddy, any more than it matters in the case of my vacation. The parks are generating money. If that money stops, it has to be replaced. Congress might not be willing to do that with an eleven trillion dollar debt. Talk about privatization; China might well end up owning Yellowstone!
Arguing whether or not Congress had the authority to charge these fees in the first place is not relevant. They exist. They are well established and they are relied upon. This makes as much sense as arguing whether or not income tax is legal.
The fees are very reasonable. Your first night camping in a National Park is going to cost almost as much (or more) than your fee for seven days. Those who frequent parks have the option of an America the Beautiful pass for pennies a day. Life is unfair to poor people. If they buy a car they will be charged a higher interest rate. If they put money in the bank, they will be paid a lower interest rate. If they need to buy health insurance because their job does not offer it, they will be raked over the coals. Capitalism is built around scr**ing over poor people; the rich get richer....the poor get poorer, as my dad used to say. I wish we could change that. Maybe some program could be developed to allow folks under the poverty line into parks free, I don't know? My guess is, however, that what it costs to get into a National Park is the least of their problems!
I have often heard the argument that lotteries are a tax on poor people. The problem I have with that is that it implies that poor people are all stupid, that they are too ignorant to understand odds. If it is a tax, it is a self imposed tax. I have been poor (eating ketchup in hot water for tomato soup poor) and I have been well off; I have never bought a lottery ticket in my life.

Some fees do help pay for the parks. The increase in the entrance fee at Zion was to help in paying for the upkeep of the Shuttle system. True the entire $25 doesn't go to the park, but a small amount does. If it wasn't for that entrance fee, the shuttle system would have to be nixed.

The $11 charge (while not an entrance fee) for the tours at Scotty's Castle in Death Valley goes entirely to the upkeep of the castle. Often the fee dollars (from entrance fees) goes towards the new signs and wonderful composting toilets that are seen in the parks. If you look, there will be signs that say "this project was completed using your fee dollars." While the entire amount doens't go to the parks, some does.

Ranger Holly

I am 74 yrs old and been going to the National Parks camping for 40 years or more. I have no problem with the fees, my income is limited, just barely over 1,000/mo. But, I am glad to help out the parks. there is nothing better. they are a marvelous gift to us. Thank you.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments