Entrance-Fee-Free Weekends Are Costly To National Park Service, But Seem to Be Boosting Visitation

This coming weekend is the last one of the summer for which the National Park Service is waiving entrance fees. Photo of moose in Swiftcurrent Lake, Glacier National Park, by Kurt Repanshek.

If trends hold, this weekend should be a busy one in the National Park System. Or maybe it won't be. For while it is the last entrance-fee-free weekend in the parks this summer, and the first two seemed to bring out more visitors than normal, there is no apparent hard-and-fast trend tied to these weekends.

Part of the problem in discerning a trend, of course, is that there are a number of variables at play when it comes to deciding whether to visit a park: gas prices, the overall economy, good weather, bad weather, etc., etc., etc. Whether parks charge visitors to enter their landscapes is just one more wild card.

Here's what the Park Service had to say after reviewing visitation trends from a select, and small, group of park system units from the first fee-free weekend back in June:

Thirty-nine parks reported car or visitor counts. Of those parks, 22 (56%) reported that the counts on the free weekend were higher than the weekends before and after. Five (13%) parks reported counts lower on the free weekend compared to the weekends before and after. Twelve (31%) reported the free weekend was higher than only one of the weekends before or after. For parks that reported an overall increase in the counts the average increase was about 24%. For those parks with a decrease the average was about 20%.

In comparisons to only the weekend before or weekend after, 30 (77%) reported an increase in the number of car/visitors over the weekend before the fee free weekend. 25 (67%) reported that the fee free weekend had car/visitor counts higher than the weekend after.

The bottom line, according to the Park Service analysis, is that there was no obvious trend.

"... Castillo De San Marcos, Walnut Canyon, Tumacacori, Saguaro, and Colonial ... all had counts that were higher on the fee free weekend than the weekends both before and after. These five parks had the greatest percentage gain of the parks that experienced increased counts on the free weekend," the agency's review shows. "Harpers Ferry, Assateague Island, Vicksburg, Capulin Volcano and Olympic ... all showed counts that were lower on the free weekend than the weekends before and after. Death Valley, Glacier, El Morro, Crater Lake, and Joshua Tree ... had one weekend with higher counts and one weekend with lower counts opposed to the free weekend.

"... Glacier seems to show the effect of normal seasonal increases. Joshua Tree shows just the opposite, a decrease that may be linked to increasing temperatures," the review notes. "As summer temperatures increase, less people go to the desert and more to the mountain parks. It is hard to identify what impact, if any, the fee weekends had. Harpers Ferry, Vicksburg, and Olympic all showed counts that were lower on the free weekend than the weekends before and after. There are many reasons that the counts could have decreased on those weekends."

Perhaps, the agency said, after analyzing visitation from the fee-free weekends in July and August it will be easier to understand cause-and-effect of visitation trends. For now, though, the waiving of fees probably has little overall effect on national park visitation, the agency concluded.

"Service-wide visitation statistics for the month of June and year to date (January-June) are up. However, it is doubtful the fee free weekend had a significant direct effect on the YTD or monthly service-wide visitation numbers. Visitation to parks that charge entrance fees makes up less than 35% of total visitation," noted the agency. "The free weekends may have indirectly played a role in increasing visitation through increased publicity for the NPS. Because of the larger overall trends, so few free days relative to 'paid' days, and the low percent of visits that happen at fee parks, it would be nearly impossible to see a service-wide visitation change directly related to a free weekend. Further, visitation at many state park systems, private campgrounds and other outdoor-based activities is increasing this year. Findings from the non-profit Outdoor Foundation note that there have been 'sizable increases in nearly every nature-based activity.' The service-wide increase is more likely due the American public’s return to nature based recreational pursuits, the current economy and other factors."

Still, the Park Service noted that it gained quite a bit of publicity for the National Park System as a result of the media attention the fee-free weekends have garnered.

"While visitation trends are hard to quantify, the amount of exposure and media around the free fee weekends was a tremendous benefit to the National Park Service," it said. "The extensive publicity on the Internet may have introduced the parks to a new younger group of visitors. The publicity and good will generated by the fee-free weekends reminded the public of the magnificent heritage that the National Park System preserves. The publicity reminded people that national parks offer an affordable vacation option even with an entrance fee."

Whatever is going on, the free weekends are costing the Park Service a relatively good chunk of change.

"Based on park revenue information for June, July and August of 2008, the current estimate of forgone revenue for the fee free weekends is approximately $750,000 to $1,000,000 per day or approximately $4,500,000 to $6,000,000 for the 6 days," the agency said.

Comments

Decrease your income and increase your costs. That's a good way to keep the parks funded. Of course the government doesn't seem to exist in reality. Next we'll hear how tax revenues are down and funding to the parks is being cut which causes all sorts of problems.

We were in Glacier the weekend following the last "free" one, and the traffic @ the West Glacier entrance was getting backed up well onto the main highway - so they opened the gates to everyone without charge! We have an annual passport to the parks, so it was of no consequence to us. But I wonder if this is a common practice at Glacier as well as many other of the more popular parks? Seems as though a revision to the entrance would be a better solution than just waving everyone through, at least as far as revenue collection goes.
I also remember as a child arriving at Mt. Rainier VERY early one morning & being waved through as the attendant was working on a cup of coffee......

I've entered some NPS areas after the entrance kiosk staffs were gone for the night. I've heard that there are some areas that have low fees coupled with relatively low visitation (in particular one of the national historic sites in Hawaii) and often the NPS won't even staff the entrance stations because it costs more to do that than they take in.

The two questions I am curious about are:

(1) Where they have an entrance fee waived, is their an increase in the amount spent on refreshments and bookstore items that could offset the loss of entrance fees, and,

(2) If someone visits because it is free that day, will that result in visiting the national parks more often in the future because of they enjoyed the visit and want to experience more parks (e.g., like stores giving out free samples to get you to try it and hopefully become a regular consumer of that product).

Phil

Anon: Anecdotal evidence from the free weekend in June showed that some sales were up, some were down in the bookstores, restaurants, etc. Beyond that, those fees go to concessionaires and not to the NPS, so any increases wouldn't offset the loss in entrance fee dollars to the NPS.

As to your second question, the Park Service did not question folks as to why they visited on the fee-free weekends, but it'd be a great answer to know!

"The bottom line, according to the Park Service analysis, is that there was no obvious trend."

A stunning statement. I'm no statistician, but my takeaway from their numbers is that 87% of the units had higher visitation on the fee-free weekends than on either one or both of the weekends before and after. Seems like a pretty clear trend to me.

When Salazar announced the free weekends NPS estimated that they would lose $500,000 per day in entrance fee revenue. Now only two months later that estimate has morphed to $750,000 to $1 million. Something fishy going on there.

The bottom line is that NPS has a vested interest in proving the inherently illogical proposition that entrance fees have no effect on visitation. They've been "marketing" and commodifying the Parks for years, claiming to take a more "business-like" approach, but they deny the most fundamental reality that real businesses have to face every day: the effect of pricing on supply and demand.

For decades the highest entrance fee to any Park was $10 and most were $5 or less. Many more than today had no entrance fee at all. The Parks were managed as a public good, not as a profit-making enterprise. Then came Fee Demo and each Park got to keep all the money it could collect, with predictable results: entrance fees went up, and visitation went down. Econ 101. Some would view that as a good thing, after all the years of saying that overuse was damaging the Parks. Others would view it as a bad thing because of the social effects (those with the lowest incomes are impacted the most) and the likelihood that reduced visitation will be followed by reduced appropriations from Congress.

Regardless of your point of view, the question of whether entrance fees deter visitation has been settled.

As the price of something goes up, demand goes down.
As the price goes down, demand goes up.
Is the National Park Service stating something else?
Seems rather suspect.