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?

Comments

I became a Lifetime member of the the Great Smoky Mountains Association this year. I'll help the parks anyway I can!

What parks do not have a entrance fee? Hot Springs National Park, The Great Smoky Mountains...

I don't believe Congaree has an entrance fee. At least it didn't a couple years ago.

Kirby's correct. There's no entrance fee at Congaree National Park. There are, of course, loads of other NPS units that don't charge entrance fees. When in doubt, visit the park's website and under Quicklinks, click on "Fees and Reservations." For Congaree, you'll find this single-sentence jewel:

FREE! Congaree National Park does not charge any entrance or tour fees.

For Grand Canyon National Park, you'll find this under Fees & Reservations

$25 per Private Vehicle is the entrance fee to Grand Canyon National Park. The fee for an individual entering by foot, bicycle, motorcycle, or non-commercial group is $12.00 per person. Admission is for seven days and includes entrance to both the North Rim and South Rim. No refunds are given due to inclement weather.

Grand Canyon National Park Vehicle Permit- $25.00. Admits one single, private, non-commercial vehicle and all its passengers. Organized groups are not eligible for the vehicle permit.

Grand Canyon National Park Individual Permit - $12.00/person. Admits one individual when entering by foot, bicycle, motorcycle, or non-commercial group. Individuals 15 years old and younger are admitted free of charge.

I just got back from a tour of several national parks in Atlantic Canada, and the admission was quite expensive. They have daily fees per person, while most parks in the U.S. have weekly fees per car. So for two of us to spend several days in Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland cost about C$80. The annual pass would have been only C$10 more, but we weren't going to be back this year, so why bother. The two of us spent only two days in Fundy National Park in New Brunswick and had to shell out C$40 for that. I'm not sure if Canada has an equivalent to the America the Beautiful card. If it did I was an idiot for not looking into it.

That said, I didn't mind paying those fees, and generally don't mind fees in American parks. It usually feels like I'm getting more than my money's worth. As for taxes and that argument, there are so many things done with my tax dollars that I find utterly reprehensible, I don't even think about the fact that I'm "double-paying" to get into parks. I'm just glad our enlightened leaders are still funding things like parks at all and I'll continue to be happy to chip in a few extra bucks beyond that.

I have no problem with entrance fees, especially since you generally see the benefit in improved facilities, great ranger programs and better preservation of nature.

Entrance fees are a needless system. They generate less than 5% of the NPS budget and their use is restricted to certain things. Plus, it has set up a have and have-not park system where parks with entrance fees (less than one-third of them) get more money for maintenance projects than the parks with no fees. Most of the time, the parks that do not collect fees do not do so because they are not permitted to by law, or it is impractical. You can bet that parks like Santa Monica Mountains, Indiana Dunes, and Fire Island would love to collect fees if it were feasible. Most or all the state parks around them do, making the NPS a poor step child to the state parks nearby.

Congress could add 10% to the NPS operations budget and eliminate all the entrance fees. The public would make out, no one would fail to visit a park because of a fee, and the NPS can get out of the entrance fee collection business.

Now, as for whether or not fees are impediments. Why else would the NPS suspend fees if they were not some sort of impediment? Seems as though the creation of these fee-free weekends is a tacit admission that fees are preventing some people from visiting parks so have no fees will get them to come.

I have no issue whatsoever paying to get into our National Parks. National Parks are the most inexpensive vactation there is. Besides, buying a pass for $80 for my family for a year is the best deal around. We usually break even within the first month of the year.

I've had a few visitors complain about the fees and I always look at it this way: It would cost well over $25 to take a family of 4 to a 2 hour movie. For less than that you're able to take your family to a beautiful National Park for a week where they will be able to learn new and exciting things and gain memories that will last a lifetime.

Ranger Holly
http://web.me.com/hollyberry

"Now, as for whether or not fees are impediments. Why else would the NPS suspend fees if they were not some sort of impediment? Seems as though the creation of these fee-free weekends is a tacit admission that fees are preventing some people from visiting parks so have no fees will get them to come."

If fees are impediments - and I'm not arguing that they aren't - then it's based on psychology rather than the real economics of it. The fees are trivial compared to the costs of simply getting to the parks for a vast majority of the population and a vast majority of the parks. (I'm thinking the big parks here, not urban NPS units.) It seems like a lot of folks that would shell out a few hundred to go to an NFL game, $50 to take the family to a movie, or a couple hundred for an amusement park will cry hardship about $20 for a week in Acadia. (Ten bucks if you go in Mid-June before the crowds!)

You can't convince me that most of the people pouring into parks on these free weekends aren't living above the poverty level and wouldn't blink at losing $20. They're showing up because of the word "FREE". That's Sales 101. If they were free all the time, the luster would wear off and things would be back to normal.

I've heard people complain about fees, but the fact is that even the most expensive park is probably dirt cheap compared to a week at Disney World, etc...

If it is true that they are so small a part of their budget, and that removing them would increase visitation, maybe that is something that should be considered. Nonetheless, I do like the idea that, while we all own these places by virtue of paying taxes, the people who actually visit them pay a little more.

Also as others mention, many places don't charge fees, and for those that do, it's technically more of a parking fee, though I say technically because you can't access many places without a vehicle.

It feels like we've been over this ground a thousand times.

Rangertoo is correct in ridding us of an important myth; entrance fees do not pay for the parks. Yes, the money from them does go into the parks, but it's a sleight of hand to suggest they actually pay for the parks. The money from entrance fees is an accounting trick. Instead of funding the parks by means of Congress, Congress removes some of that money and expects entrance fees to make up the short fall. If revenue increased, it's just as likely that funding would be reduced. In other words, Congress funds the parks no matter the circumstance; the idea that your entrance fee is funding the park is simply not true.

The arguments against entrance fees are rather simple. First, if the national parks are public goods that are supposed to be available to all of the American public, which is exactly what they are supposed to be, then their cost is supposed to be paid for by the public at large. If payment is determined by use, the places aren't public goods but are essentially commodities whose value is determined by their popularity. Yet, if that's what national parks are, then their status in law should be re-defined, not as places protected in perpetuity, but places protected depending upon their popularity. Second, any cost whatsoever to entrance stratifies access, making the park more accessible to those with more money and less accessible to those without. Yet, a public good is supposed to apply to all the public equally, and so entrance fees accept the principle that some public goods are more for those with more rather than those with less. If national parks aren't such places, then the law should be changed to acknowledge that (perhaps, it's already a de facto truth since national parks are not all equally accessible for a whole host of reasons, but that's a larger discussion that questions the very nature of national parks).

It's not relevant whether fees are relatively more affordable. Some places - take for instance amusement parks or movie theaters - aren't public goods; whether they should be would be for another forum; however, the relative cost of seeing one rather than the other has no bearing on the question. If national parks are supposed to be there for all people (just as transit systems in cities, etc.), then any user fee associated with them is unfair. It doesn't matter that there are other things that may be more unfair; the greater evil of something else doesn't justify the lesser evil that exists.

It's also not relevant that user fees to national parks (or any other public good) generally don't affect impoverished people (because people in poverty already are shut out of most parks because it is too expensive even to make the trip). The fact that people in poverty are already shut out (except those few who are able to secure jobs in the parks) is not reason for further shutting them out and adding to the line of those who are shut out. If you are a modestly poor person who happens to live near a park, the user fee can in fact be a determining factor. Anything that serves to uphold and exacerbate an existing injustice, even if only barely, is not something worth supporting.

Of course, everything I am stating depends upon accepting that national parks are public goods, that they apply to all Americans equally as national parks, and that this arrangement in itself is something worth supporting. Do the Everglades really mean as much to me way down in Florida as Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier much closer to me? Does my American identity stretch that far, even though it would be nearly impossible to give me as much access to the former as to the latter? Perhaps, things are too big, and that lends itself to contradictions that are irresolvable. Perhaps, and we shouldn't be afraid of having that larger discussion. However, the premise as it stands suggests that parks are public lands, that the public is allowed to have access to the lands, and that there's no reason to have any formula at all that makes a place that much more accessible to those with more than those with less. When you add in my first point - that the user fees don't actually pay for anything except as a kind of congressional magic trick - then you realize that it's unfairness all for the service of absolutely nothing.

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

Jim, you're correct that relative cost is irrelevant in a discussion of fairness. I'm apparently illiterate and read the question more as whether fees are a good idea.

I guess the original question asked if fees were "fair", so I probably shouldn't argue the point at all, given that my ideas of fairness are far from mainstream. If we wanted it to be truly fair, the poor people (many of whom don't pay taxes) should have higher entrance fees than those who pay lots of taxes since they already paid their admission on April 15th. And should I have to pay taxes to support programs that have no benefit to me, my community, or my state? If I hate nature, why should I have to support the parks at all? Those are questions of political philosophy with valid arguments on both sides, but nothing is ever going to be fair. If we go beyond taxes we can argue the fairness of excluding or including non-Americans, whether anyone other than Native Americans should even own a lot of this land, if the ownership of land is even a human right... Fairness is subjective and can be argued to absurdity. Hmmm, maybe that's what blog comment sections are for? :-)

Now if we want to argue if fees are a "good idea" or if they're legal, then we can use data and argue it. Those of you pointing out that entrance fees are trivial in the budget of the parks would lean me toward saying they serve no purpose. But why, if fees are so meaningless, would parks that can't collect them wish that they could?

In a better world, we would not pay entrance fees, as the general budget should cover the Park's needs. But we all know our system doesn't allow that to happen, and yeah, that's annoying. In the real world however, I'm happy to pay entrance fees to the Parks - it's one of the few things I still like about America. In fact, I wish we could designate where all our tax dollars went; I'd feel good about contributing to a sane system that supported sane values, rather than feeling like most of every dollar I give the government supports the military. Imagine - one less bomber - and we wouldn't have this conversation at all. The problem is so much larger than just the Parks, but thank goodness they're there for the sanity of us all. I'd do almost anything within reason to support the Parks - it feels right

Jim Macdonald -

First of all, I think your first point is that, assuming there is some number that you can put on how much it costs to run the parks, Congress funds the parks but reduces funding and expects it to be replaced with revenue from entrance fees. And you're also saying that if for some reason the parks had a surge in revenue from entrance fees, Congress can and would reduce its own direct funding.

Anyway, I'm not sure what your point by noting that is, but I gather you're suggesting that even if revenue fell Congress would step in, and that therefore these fees are not necessary to fund the parks and that to say they support the parks is untrue. I doubt it's that simple, and given that the parks are underfunded it's a bit illusory to talk about a given figure that is needed to fund the parks. And while I agree that Congress might reduce funding if user fee revenue increased, I'm not so sure the reverse is true. So, to say "Congress funds the parks no matter the circumstance" is a confusing statement to make.

You also of course overlook the fact that under such an arrangement, these parks are paid for largely by everyone, but that some of the cost is shifted specifically to those who use them and create impact in them. I kind of like this. Although they are public goods, I think it's nice that the people who do visit them pay a slightly disproportionate share of maintaining them.

Also, yes it's not worth comparing public goods to private attractions. But I think people mention it because we sometimes hear complaints that the experience of visiting NPs (the entrance fees) are too expensive. And I think it's insulting because of how little you pay for an entrance fee, you get a lot for it. Of course everyone also is paying with their taxes, so maybe we should complain.

There are three million visitors to Yellowstone in a year. Let's say that only half of them pay at the gate (the rest have an annual pass, seniors pass etc.) Now, for the sake of arguement, let's say there are four people per car. That's still almost one hundred million dollars in fees. And these are all conservative estimates. Wonder how "trivial" Superintendent Lewis would find a hundred million dollar cut in her budget?
As for parks with entrance fees getting more money than those without.......duh!? Maybe it costs more to run Yellowstone or Yosemite than it does Santa Monica Mountains?! I'm sure that it costs more to run Yellowstone than it does to administer BLM or National Forest land of the same size.
I love your last post Kirby. Nothing in life is "fair". But I really think these fees are a good idea. Should we also do away with camping fees inside the park? Is it "fair" to charge for firewood? How about a t-shirt? It's not "fair" that that kid got a t-shirt and I can't afford one for my kid!
Jim, you sound like a socialist there buddy. That's OK, because I am one; but I still think these fees make sense given what special places and special protections National Parks are and need. Set up discounts for the poor (BTW, I'm that too), or even free passes. I don't care; but don't do away with the fees.

The belief that if fees went away Congress would step in and make up the difference is a little hard to swallow given todays economy and deficits. The answer in California apparently is to simply close state parks that are underfunded. Doing away with fees would more likely lead to increased visitation and lower park budgets to deal with it. In any case, and in the real world right now, there are no doubt folks driving through Yosemite Valley, around Old Faithful or along the rim of the Grand Canyon wondering what on earth we can do to REDUCE the number of park visitors! Our parks are already being loved to death! Maybe what we really should be doing is reducing fees in little visited parks and INCREASING them in busy parks. Or even limiting the number of visitors each day during the summer in such parks.

The argument that it costs more to run Yellowstone than Santa Monica Mountains has no merit as it relates to fees. Gateway National Recreation Area in New York is the third most expensive park to run and it has no entrance fees. Nor does Great Smoky Mountains or Blue Ridge. In fact, of the top 10 most expensive parks, 6 have no entrance fees.

As I noted earlier, the charging of entrance fees is largely based on feasibility. Seriously, is that good public policy? Parks charge fees when it is most logistically possible? What other fess and charges does the federal government collect based on the feasibility of collecting them? It would be like only charging passport fees for those people who have checking accounts and can mail a check but not those who want to pay by cash. The inequity of the system is causing inequity in the managing and caring for the parks. Parks with lots of fee income get to build and repair their facilities. Those that have no fees stand in line for the scraps. This is not a logical or defendable system. Hence, the Jefferson Memorial is literally sinking into the tidal basin while Grand Canyon builds a new backcountry permit office and a new fire station. Which one would you pay for first if you had to choose on a national priority basis?

I wonder how much of the increased visitation to the parks on the free weekends were not due to "free" but instead due to increased advertising. Every local and national news station or newspaper I saw/read advertised these free weekends. However, the rest of the year, I don't hear a word about the parks on regular news. So, maybe just that increased marketing has something to do with increased visitation. Hard to know.

Kirby, I don't mind having the discussion on whether the national parks make any sense at all and whether the basic assumptions are wrong. I wrote a several-part series of essays a couple years ago looking at the creation of Yellowstone, the reasons why, attacking those reasons as unsound, and then suggesting a different approach to the question. If you have an evening or two, read http://www.yellowstone-online.com/2007/02/part-1-john-locke-yellowstone-and-dogma.html. My argument is that if the parks have a basic premise of what they are, it's logically inconsistent to apply user fees to them (I don't think anyone considers t-shirts, etc. - following up on another post - to be public goods; however, suggested by the foundational act). However, if parks shouldn't be conceived that way or governed that way, all bets are off. In my case, I'm still never going to support a classist solution to access, but neither am I going to support a lot of other things my argument assumes as well.

Anonymous, I'm not a socialist; I'm worse - I'm an anarchist. However, I'm beyond that a person interested in policy that is logically coherent. At the very least, policy should follow validly; at the most, it should also be sound. User fees do not follow from the congressionally-defined meaning of national parks. There is an inconsistency in policy. My discussion with Kirby suggests that I also don't think the policy is sound on other more fundamental grounds.

As for the shell game of user fees, rangertoo has very good points to make. One of the claims that has been made in response is to suggest that Congress won't in fact fund if user fees disappear. That's quite likely true as far as I can tell, but that misses the point. Funding is ultimately tied to Congress; greater numbers generated by user fees also won't guarantee more income for the parks, both those that don't receive them and those that do because Congress can just as easily take more money away in the next budget supposing that to be made up by user fees. Wherever user fees are used for public goods throughout the world, the funding problem is almost never solved (think postage, think utilities in other countries, think public transit), and costs actually rise for users and for services significantly over time (though they are supposed to pay for better services and share the cost burden over a greater number of people). So besides being unfair, they don't work.

One other claim was made to encourage greater user fees in places that are overcrowded; I would oppose that idea because it defines access again on class rather than a more appropriate designator - like say, knowledge of how to treat the resources. I have always believed Yellowstone, for instance, could handle 20 times as many people if people were half as ignorant when they came into the park. A much better way to control access is based on ability to use the resource; in one state park in Hawaii, all visitors to the beach with a coral reef are required to watch a video in a visitor's center before entering the park. Perhaps, just that reform would go a long way toward protecting the parks and restricting access to the dangerously ignorant (which is like drunk driving when you think of it in terms of a national park) instead of just to those who are just as ignorant but perhaps have more money to spend.

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

Can you imagine the line at the gate of Yellowstone if all visitors had to watch the video of the bison throwing the tourist in the air that they show at the canyon visitor center before they could enter the park? What fun! That would thin out the crowd!......Not the video, but the line! Bet people would still want their picture taken next to the big bull!
"One of the claims that has been made in response is to suggest that Congress won't in fact fund if user fees disappear. That's quite likely true as far as I can tell, but that misses the point."
Jim, I have a great deal of respect for you and your work. I am an avid reader of your "paper" and thank you for that; but sometimes you get so caught up in ideals and ideas that you leave the rest of us mere mortals standing here with our mouths hanging open. In the real world what is right and ideal does not always win out. We live in a world of compromise and necessity. The money has to come from somewhere. If you do away with fees and Congress does not step up and use more of China's money to make up the difference, then the parks will be hurting. Those are the facts, here in the real world. Right, wrong or indifferent. It doesn't matter what the "point" is. You can make any point you want and we can all agree with you, and it won't matter if we watch larger parks like Yellowstone understaffed and overrun with "ignorant" tourists and smaller parks sold off due to lack of funds to run them. Ideals are great (and I hope I haven't lost all of mine that I had when I was your age!), but all the ideals in the world and two bucks will buy you a cup of coffee.
Personally I am proud to pay for my entrance pass. I, like you, live near Yellowstone and spend a lot of time there. I am happy to do my small part. Every year when I buy my pass I think, "Man! What a steal!!" I feel like I have a stake in Yellowstone that I wouldn't have if it were paid for exclusively out of tax dollars, and that I don't have in the surrounding National Forests. Frankly I get tired of talking to my hunting friends about why fish and game doesn't do this or that for this or that species, and they say it is because that species isn't hunted and fish and game gets their money from hunters. I wish there were a "wildlife watchers" tag that I could buy to show fish and game that we (and the species we care about) count too. We live in a capitalist society, anarchist or not; and money talks and bs walks as they say.
In a way, this is how California got into such financial trouble. Every single time there is a ballot initiative to increase public services, they vote yes. Every single time there is an initiative to raise taxes to pay for it, they vote no! Things have to be paid for, including our parks. Fees are a fair way to help do that, because they target actual users.

But, fees don't pay for the parks ... they don't. You understand that if the fees are taken away so too is the funding; the same is true of the opposite. If fees go up, the funding also decreases. In other words, in the real world, user fees have nothing at all to do with overall funding ... just the process of the funding. In the real world, user fees contribute nothing to the funding of the parks. In either circumstance - more revenue of funding from user fees or less revenue from funding from user fees, overall funding is determined by one thing - how much Congress appropriates.

Our yearly pass does not one thing to support the funding of the parks; all it supports is the unfair mechanism. In fact, where user fees are relied on for public services, those services become more and more privatized and less protected - that's the real world fact.

As for the common idea that ideas and the real world have nothing to do with each other, an idea that has nothing to do with the real world is not much of an idea; and a real world imagined to be inconsistent with reason is not real at all. If you don't think an idea matches up with reality, it's up to you to show it - a lot of public goods don't rely on user fees (think the military as one example); there's no reason to apply a mechanism for funding which doesn't fund, and which more importantly happens to be unfair. Either way, the parks lose, and it's a false sense of accomplishment to think when we pay that yearly $50 for Yellowstone and Grand Teton, to think that our payment has anything to do with the real funding of the parks. That's one reason why I called it right from the start a sleight of hand.

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

Rangertoo -

I think you make a good point about inequity between units that can raise funds and those that can't, but if there is inequity Congress should fix that, and so the problem isn't necessarily that they're not allowed to charge fees, but that Congress doesn't make up for not allowing them to.

I would also say though that for some units, it may be undesirable to charge fees. Do you want to charge people to walk into the Jefferson Memorial? It is a valid question. Of course you have to ask if people will pay for something they can just look at. But it is a good question nonetheless as to whether we should charge people to walk into the JM. I think a lot of people think it's nicer without a fence around it requiring a fee to get in. And units are so different that it's hard to say there is one rule that fits all. Some units are gigantic pieces of land, whereas some units contain buildings scattered around an area.

Also take Klondike Gold Rush in Seattle. Would people pay to get into a small museum? For sure, some would. But a lot would not. So maybe in some cases it's better to let Congress fund units to let the public enjoy free of charge.

As for feasability, of course it's hard for some units to charge user fees. In my state we have the St. Croix National Scenic Riveryway, which as I understand it protects the river and land adjacent to it. So if someone steps onto that land, should they pay? I think that's a case where it makes little sense to charge a fee, because it's just too hard to do that. You can do it, and you can create an honor system for people who enter the land, but I just don't think it always makes sense to charge fees for every entrance to every unit.

But I will concede you're right to question whether parks are adequately funded, and if it is undesirable or unfeasible to charge fees, whether we're doing our best to make up for that.

(That last anon was me, BTW...I forgot to put my name in)
I agree that if fees go up funding will not necessarily go up; but I strongly disagree that if the fees go away funding will remain. You apparently agree with your statement : "One of the claims that has been made in response is to suggest that Congress won't in fact fund if user fees disappear. That's quite likely true as far as I can tell....." therefore your statement that fees have nothing to do with funding our parks makes no sense.
From the United States Department of the Interior website:
"The officials noted that 100 percent of the revenue derived from passes sold at federal recreation sites will directly benefit the selling agency and no less than 80 percent of the revenue will remain at the site where the pass was sold."
If these fees disappear they are not likely, in todays economy, to be replaced.
Ideas are important, so are ideals. No fees would be great, so would no taxes. Neither is likely to happen in the near future. Not with a National Debt of over eleven trillion dollars.

Frank,

You are missing the equation.

Either there is an increase in user fees or there is a decrease in user fees, in both cases Congress is likely to cut funding. Therefore, user fee revenue has nothing to do with the total amount of funding received. That is, neither reality is the cause for the ultimate result - they both end up with the same result. That is, it's not relevant. Congress is simply going to figure out how much the parks are worth; if they are making more via user fees, they may well use it as an excuse to provide less funding. If they don't provide the shortfall from user fees, Congress is still likely to provide less because the national parks aren't a priority. The user fee is simply a substitute for whatever they've decided to fund.

I'm originally from Ohio. One way they bamboozled the state to accept the state lottery was to claim that the lottery paid for education in the public schools. That was nonsense. Statistically, it paid for 8 days, but it actually paid for less. The state legislature simply removed funds that would have gone to education and replaced it with lottery money. So, it was a lie to say that user fees even constituted eight school days worth of funding; it actually provided nothing because money was taken out the back end. The lottery didn't pay for education; it did, however, tax the poor.

The same goes for user fees in the parks. When people think user fees pay for the 15% or whatever it is for funding of the parks, it's not true. It's not really the case; money is subtracted from the back end, and the budget is made up for by substituting in user fees. That's why I say that user fees are relevant to the process of funding, not to the bottom line. The amount has one determinant - Congress. However, the mechanism is unfair, and legitimizing the user fee mechanism only makes the funding source that much more unstable and that much more tenuous. All of that is inconsistent with parks supposedly there for the public good.

Your quote about the amount of money that stays in the park, etc. only allows Congress to provide that much less funding to the park. They simply figure the user fees into the equation of the funding mechanism. However, it doesn't mean Yellowstone is funded that much more if it has that many more visitors. It just means that the money that is allocated to Yellowstone is accounted for in a larger percentage by user fees (and none at all in some of the parks). The only way that user fees could serve as an actual funding source is if Congress disregards them entirely in their appropriations; then a park with more in user fees will receive necessarily more in funds. It would still be unfair, but then user fees would actually contribute to the total. Even then, however, it is a decision of Congress in its appropriations and not the collection of user fees that is the real politik here.

Making the mechanism dependent on fees is simply a step toward making the parks disappear. Because they are not funded as public resources and have become so dependent on user fees, when revenue does shrivel up, the parks will seek outside sources for funding. The foundations will make more and more corporate deals. That was happening even when today's economy seemed better. User fees ultimately are a step toward outright corporate privatization; that's been the case in just about every situation I can think of around the world where they are applied. You see it especially in World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programs and how those fees have destroyed the fabric of society. They show that Congress's priority is not with the parks they felt they had the right to set up. And, that's the rub here. Congress does not value the parks, and that's why the user fee mechanism gives the fascade of funding the parks when in fact it divests public investment in the parks through the regressive tax of user fees.

That being the case and the case being that user fees are otherwise unfair, it's far better to be rid of them. If the parks are going to hell in a hand basket because Congress doesn't care about them, it's better that at the very least it not exacerbate the problem. And, ultimately, I don't care whether Congress divests itself of parks (they never had the right to create them in the first place), but I do care how the current order deconstructs. If we are to have a better world (I have no interest in ideals or ideal worlds - utopia is for fools), then we should commit ourselves to justice. Because when everything eventually does fall apart, then we will be in a better place to take care of the places we love. It would be far better that they fell apart with Yellowstone still accessible to the widest diversity of society than it to decay into the rotten hands of corporations and the very rich.

But, short of that bleak vision, at the very least, we can stop pretending that user fees pay for the parks. We can stop the unfair practice and open the gates to as many people who are willing to explore the wonders of the parks as possible. We can't continue to exacerbate the problems of economic class and ultimately care for parks at the same time. That had better be reality or else it's all just a cynical and ugly hell, and all our words and solutions are for nothing. While I'm not an idealist, I certainly don't think our words and our love for these places are for nothing and that we can in reality do much better.

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

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.

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
http://web.me.com/hollyberry

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.

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.

Frank,

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

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.

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.

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