Our National Parks: "For the Benefit And Enjoyment Of The People" (If You Don't Mind the Entrance Fee)

The Roosevelt Arch, as depicted on an early 20th century postcard by Haynes.

While the three "entrance-fee-free" weekends in the National Park System are now behind us, the debate over the propriety of park entrance fees no doubt will go forward, if not heighten, in the wake of some impressive visitor numbers logged by some parks. One organization that you won't hear lobbying for a permanent waiving of the fees, though, is the American Recreation Coalition, which was a strong voice for them more than a decade ago and continues that stance today.

While the entrance fees are a minimal part of any national park visit -- costing no more than $25 for a week for a carload -- the Interior Department's decision to offer three weekends without the fees this summer is an indication that those in Washington suspect, at least, that fees can be directly tied to visitor numbers. The National Park Service isn't yet gripping tightly to that connection -- "it is doubtful the fee free weekend had a significant direct effect on the YTD or monthly service-wide visitation numbers," the agency said last week.

But when you have parks such as Mammoth Cave reporting a 28 percent increase in visitation for the first free weekend back in June and a 61 percent increase for the free weekend in July, and Rocky Mountain National Park reporting a 32 percent increase for the June weekend, is it so difficult to make a connection?

No doubt the heightened publicity about the national parks this year has helped. After all, neither Mammoth Cave nor Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which also had a strong June, have entrance fees. Furthermore, park visitation is up across the system this year. Yellowstone is doing record numbers of visitors, as is Glacier National Park. According to the National Park Service, through the first half of 2009 the National Park System counted 127,728,898 visits, an increase of nearly 4.5 million visits over the same period in 2008. In June alone, visitation to national parks increased by over 718,000 visits between 2008 to 2009, it noted.

But what's often lost in this debate over cause-and-effect are the intentions of those who helped forward the national park movement a century ago. Many view President Theodore Roosevelt as one of the most environmentally focused presidents in the country's history. True, he had a love of hunting, but beyond that he had a love of the land. And he thought places such as Yellowstone and Yosemite and other national parks should be open to all, without charge. Here is how he put it on April 24, 1903, during dedication of the arch at the north entrance to Yellowstone that today bears his name:

The Yellowstone Park is something absolutely unique in the world so far as I know. Nowhere else in any civilized country is there to be found such a tract of veritable wonderland made accessible to all visitors, where at the same time not only the scenery of the wilderness, but the wild creatures of the Park are scrupulously preserved, as they were the only change being that these same wild creatures have been so carefully protected as to show a literally astonishing tameness. The creation and preservation of such a great national playground in the interests of our people as a whole is a credit to the nation; but above all a credit to Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. It has been preserved with wise foresight. The scheme of its preservation is noteworthy in its essential democracy. Private game preserves, though they may be handled in such a way as to be not only good things for themselves but good things for the surrounding community, can yet never be more than poor substitutes, from the standpoint of the public, for great national play grounds such as this Yellowstone Park. This Park was created, and is now administered for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. The government must continue to appropriate for it, especially in the direction of completing and perfecting an excellent system of driveways.

But already its beauties can be seen with great comfort in a short space of time and at an astonishingly small cost, and with the sense on the part of every visitor that it is in part his property; that it is the property of Uncle Sam and therefore of all of us. The only way that the people as a whole can secure to themselves and their children the enjoyment in perpetuity of what the Yellowstone National Park has to give, is by assuming the ownership in the name of the nation and jealously safeguarding and preserving the scenery, the forests, and the wild creatures.

Would permanently waiving entrance fees not be in keeping with the spirit and intent of what our forefathers wanted?

Currently, according to the National Park Service, "visitation to parks that charge entrance fees makes up less than 35% of total visitation," a little-known fact that further skews the fairness of entrance fees. Why should Great Smoky, which attracts more than 9 million visitors each year, not charge entrance fees, while Golden Spike National Historic Site, which counted just 39,968 visitors last year, charges $7 in summer and $5 in winter to gain entrance? (The answer of course, is that Congress, in creating Great Smoky, prohibited entrance fees for the park. But what Congress has done it can just as easily undo.)

Wholly supportive of entrance fees is the American Recreation Coalition, a throttle-oriented organization whose members include the American Council of Snowmobile Associations, Family Motor Coach Association, International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, National Marine Manufacturers Association (ie. the personal watercraft manufacturers), Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association, Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, The Walt Disney Company, American Motorcyclist Association, American Suzuki Motor Corporation, Americans for Responsible Recreational Access, Association of Marina Industries, Boat U.S., Bombardier Recreational Products, Family Campers and RVers, Florida RV Trade Association, International Association of Snowmobile Administrators, Marine Retailers Association of America, Motorcycle Industry Council, Personal Watercraft Industry Association, Recreational Park Trailer Industry Association, Specialty Equipment Market Association, Specialty Vehicle Institute of America (ie. the ATV industry), Thor Industries, Inc. (the self-proclaimed "world's largest manufacturer of recreation vehicles"), American Power Boat Association, International Association for Amusement Parks and Attractions, International Jet Sports Boating Association, National Hot Rod Association, and the National Off-Road Bicycle Association.

The long-standing president of the American Recreation Coalition is Derrick Crandall, a Washington lobbyist who was among the initial proponents of "user fees" for public lands. This is how he portrayed them on February 26, 1998, during a congressional hearing before the House Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands:

Recreation fees on public lands were one of the issues which prompted the creation of the American Recreation Coalition in 1979. As we have said to this subcommittee several times before, the recreation community enjoys free lunches just as much as any other interest group, but we have come to understand that it is hard to demand a great menu and top food when you aren't paying. And we certainly understand that recreation on federal lands really isn't a free lunch: the costs have simply been borne by general taxes, not user fees.

Beginning in the early 1980's, we came to understand that during periods of financial pressure on the federal government, recreation programs were as much in jeopardy as other "nice" federal endeavors. And by 1982, the consequences were becoming clear. Campgrounds in our national forests were opening later and closing earlier -- frustrating millions who sought to use their lands during shoulder seasons, but found only locked gates. We saw declines in the numbers of interpretive efforts underway -- the ranger walks and campfire talks that have left indelible impressions on me and tens of millions of others. We saw recreationists and federal officials alike frustrated that no budgets were available to create facilities for, and to administer, such newly popular recreational activities as mountain biking and personal watercraft use, Nordic skiing and more.

More recently, Mr. Crandall said the following the other day in the wake of the boost in national park visitation this year:

"As I've repeatedly said, I'm not sure fee-free days was the right marketing tool," said Crandall. "But it did stir up media interest and welcome interest among the American people. It wasn't just the fee-free days. The publicity reminded the American public what a great value the national parks are."

The parks are, and continue to be, a great value, even under the current entrance fee structure. But that's besides the point. What should be of concern is that, as Mr. Crandall pointed out in 1998, the costs of maintaining public lands haven't been met fully by the Congress, and so it resorted to political sleight of hand -- the requisite legislation was quietly attached to a larger bill without full consideration by either the House or the Senate, first in 1996 and again just a few years ago -- to institute a pay-to-play tax. It's a tax that the land-management agencies have become addicted to. It's also one that some members of Congress realize is patently unfair to Americans, whose income taxes theoretically are to be used to maintain the public landscape.

"Americans already pay to use their public lands on April 15,” Senator Max Baucus, D-Montana, said in December 2007 when he and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, introduced the Fee Repeal and Expanded Access Act of 2007. “We shouldn’t be taxed twice to go fishing, hiking, or camping on OUR public lands. It just doesn’t make any sense. That’s why Mike and I are going to fight like the dickens to get this bill passed."

Here's what Senator Crapo had to say:

“As an outdoorsman and legislator, I have always supported fair and reasonable access to our nation’s public lands. Mandatory user fees for access to many of those lands limits accessibility to those who can afford the cost and results in a “pay-to-play” system that is unacceptable. I also fully recognize that we need to adequately fund recreation activities on federal lands and will continue to fight in Congress to make sure the funding needs of our public lands management agencies are met.”

Now, what's interesting about the senators' legislation is that it didn't apply to national park entrance fees. But that's another story.


I've written about this before - it is not just the entrance fees themselves, it is the inequity of the system. Parks that cannot collect fees by law, or do not because of impracticality, are left in the dust to fight for meager drippings of maintenance money. Parks charging fees have access to the funds they collect and in some cases are building more than they need. The have and have-not park system is not a "system" at all. It is an "every superintendent for themselves" program that undermines the very concept of a National Park System. Does every Target store keep its profits or does it share them with the whole company?

Does every Target store keep its profits or does it share them with the whole company?

Target is a self-interested, for profit company that is organized to survive and prosper by satisfying their customers who voluntarily make purchases of the goods that they offer for sale.

The federal guvmint, on the other hand, is a whole nuther beast. Don't expect logic and efficiency to dictate the structural integrity of an outfit that mainly extracts its funds through coercion (the tax code) and creates policy primarily to win re-election and stay in power. What you get instead is stuff like No Child Left Behind, Cash For Clunkers, un-winnable and costly war in faraway Muslim deserts, Goldman Sachs & AIG bailouts and the much vaunted NPS Centennial Initiative. Not exactly the fruitful and productive stuff of greatness.

Still your question resonates with logic, unfortunately that is not what is on display in this debate.

Would permanently waiving entrance fees not be in keeping with the spirit and intent of what our forefathers wanted?

Deja vu, Kurt.

Don't you remember this discussion?

It's worth repeating:

In 1914, William Steele, "father" and superintendent of Crater Lake National Park, wrote:

"The frequent changes of administration in this Government, together with the unsatisfactory condition in which the national park service is left by Congress, are so pronounced that capitalists are unwilling to advance funds on park concessions in amounts adequate to their needs. . . . Under such conditions it seems to me imperative that the General government acquire possession of all hotels and other permanent improvements of a private nature within the parks. . . . This would be an important step toward making the parks self-sustaining, which they should be. With the road system completed, this revenue, together with that received from automobiles, would make the Crater Lake Park self-sustaining from the start . . ."

But my larger point is that at the early 20th century, the overall goal seemed to emphasize a self-sustaining nature of national parks:

"Roosevelt's Bureau of the Budget in 1935 instructed the Service to develop a fee structure for all the national parks and the national monuments as well, the object being to make the National Park System more nearly self-sustaining."

I've seen historical evidence in the other parks I've worked that parks were originally intended to be self-sustaining, although I do not have access to those resources. So, I don't think that the claim that parks should be dependent on federal funding holds much historical weight.

If our forefathers saw what a political quagmire parks have become, they'd probably champion self-sustaining, non-profit, non-governmental conservation trusts instead.

Again, how much the fees have an impact probably has a lot to do with how many people live around a park. I'd love to know how many people who visited fee-free to RMNP live within 100 miles of the park. I bet it's a lot. As for Mammoth Cave, nothing like Denver that close by, but Bowling Green and Nashville are both not too far.

I still think waiving a $20 fee that lets you in for 7 days (but not else) can't be responsible for much increased visitation except by locals.

In any case, there is some evidence of increased visitation. Is that a good thing? Very complicated question. We don't want to turn the parks into the Peter Pan Ride at Disney World (i.e., sit in your car and look out the window and drive out). I'd like to see more to encourage quality visitation over quantity of visitors. Maybe an argument out there for higher fees?

We don't want to turn the parks into the Peter Pan Ride at Disney World (i.e., sit in your car and look out the window and drive out).

Too late.

That's what most parks, including my beloved Crater Lake, have become. On my recent visit, this became clearer than ever. People don't get more than a few feet away from their cars, and when they leave the parking lot, they trample ancient tree roots and kill them. I saw at least a dozen people go over the wall to the caldera's edge. Someone asked how many people fell to their death from the spot he was so precariously standing. "Several" was my reply. One group who went out of bounds left a large empty cracker box, a water bottle, and various other trash in front of their car. As they were backing out, I gathered the trash, tapped on their window and asked if they forgot something. "This was once the cleanest lake in the world," I said handing them their trash.

At this overlook, where I spent significant time, dozens and dozens of motorcycles assailed my ears. There was not one single moment of quiet at this overlook. No exaggeration. Same is true for the overlook NPS employees affectionately call "The Corrals".

On my way out of the park, I had to smell oil for 15 miles, which was being dumped by the thousands of gallons on chipseal, which generates more roadway noise at any operating speed than typical asphalt or concrete surfaces. The smell of the oil overpowered the usual scent of pines and firs. This trip left such a bad taste in my mouth that I have vowed never to drive into the park again.

Regular motorcycles don't particularly bother me. A Gold Wing, BMW touring bike, or even your typical "crotch rocket" has a fairly innocuous sound that doesn't bother me any more than the average car. Now Harleys and bikes set up for a similar rumble just ruin any outdoor experience for me. The riders themselves can be nice enough people, and the prices often mean that most of the people who can afford them are upper middle class business types. I met some fairly ordinary Harley riders, including someone who offered to take a photo of my wife and myself at Lassen Volcanic NP, or a "Christian motorcycle club" where I was asked to help take a group photo at Crater Lake.

I did hear that Badlands NP does beef up security (they bring in LE rangers from all over) before each Sturgis Motorcycle Rally as throngs of harder core bikers ride through the park en masse before going to the rally. Again - most are probably honest law abiding citizens, but there can be some of the "outlaw" types.

Bad behavior happens everywhere. I've seen signs everywhere that say "no swimming" in rivers near waterfalls, and "stay on trail" in areas with geothermal activity or risk of falling - and people just flat out ignore them.

As for fees, I would think that it does make somewhat of a difference. Great Smoky Mountain NP was supposedly fee free as a condition of its establishment. I believe it has the highest visitation (by far) of any of the full-fledged "National Parks". Olympic NP also has some rather high visitation numbers. I'd think that their fee-free areas (Lake Crescent and the entire coastal section) might have something to do with it. There might also be a disconnect with the methods of counting visits. I've read stuff about the methods, and it can get complicated with average vistors per car assigned and estimates where fees aren't collected.

Thousands of people go jogging/biking/hiking in Rock Creek NP every week. No entrance fees are charged; collecting them would be difficult considering how many access points there are to the paths (it's smack dab in the middle of D.C.). So how would you gauge higher visitation in an urban park like this? It seems this park has to rely on whatever monies Congress sees fit to allocate. I suppose it would get more funding if it counted as a "jewel". As an aside, it's too bad I have to do a personal risk assessment every time I visit - it's also a great place to get murdered.

I believe that free entrance to GRSM is more than an act of congress. Wasn't free entrance part of the deed when North Carolina & Tennessee transferred state land for the park?

NPS is willing to enforce the terms about open to the public in perpetuity on the federal deed of lands to California for State Parks; I suspect Tennessee & North Carolina would be at least as willing to enforce terms on NPS.

Tomp, I do believe you're right. I was just cutting to the chase;-)

Speaking of drawing people to the parks, this is a great piece for a story here:


For those who haven't clicked the link, it's to a story that tells about the arrival of most creature comforts for family campers:

The Coleman outdoors company sells air mattresses with built-in alarm clocks and night lights, and tents outfitted with "integrated lighting systems" and auto-roll windows. For those who can't bear to be unplugged for any length of time, DirecTV has a portable satellite and Kampgrounds of America offers wireless Internet at most of its camp sites.

And for a small fee, employees at Montgomery County's Little Bennett Regional Park will set up a fully furnished campsite, complete with tent that sleeps four, chairs, propane stove and lantern. Marshmallows are optional.


"There's an expectation of a certain level of comfort or people won't go outside,'' said Jeff Willard, senior vice president of global marketing and new product development for Coleman. "It needs to be comfortable. Otherwise, people are going to stay inside and do Facebook."

I'd be curious to what other Traveler readers think of this approach to camping. While this might bring folks into the parks and forests, is it really accomplishing the end goal of introducing them to nature? Can you hear the crickets chirping or the wolves howling or the owls hooting if you're inside your battery-powered tent (yep, there are tents out there that come complete with battery packs that you can plug your electronics into) playing video games or watching videos?

I wonder how many of the "visits" to Great Smoky Mountains NP consist solely of driving US 441 from Gatlinburg to the casino in Cherokee - and back?

My approach to camping includes a variety of battery powered devices. Vinyl air mattresses have been around since forever, but I found the inflation was aided with a battery powered inflator from Coleman. It's essentially just a blower which reached a maximum inflation point that wasn't quite enough - but that's 80-90% of what I needed. I could finish off with a hand pump which was quieter and useful for topping off each night after the inevitable loss of air.

As for other creature comforts - I had to find a place in Yosemite that had internet access. The public access at Yosemite Lodge is a very low $5.95 for up to 7 days and 7 "logins". They don't have it at the campgrounds, but I did find it useful for checking on finances and email. The employees didn't seem to mind, and I think they recognized us on our return visits. I think the location for internet access was intentional. At the Ahwahnee the access was for guests only, as I don't think they really want too many people hanging out there who aren't guests.

MM> I wonder how many of the "visits" to Great Smoky Mountains NP consist solely of driving US 441 from Gatlinburg to the casino in Cherokee - and back?


The casino opened in 1997. I don't see any huge trends.

It's a hard question. I'm not opposed to an air mattress instead of sleeping on rocks, or a DVD player to get you through that drive through Illinois. Nor do I have a problem with sending a quick email home to say I'm doing OK. But some of this goes over the line - when you pay someone to set up a tent and grill for you, it just seems like a manufactured experience. I think it's more rewarding to do it yourself. I don't quite see the point in camping if you're only minimally invested in the experience (although $25/night is still cheaper than a hotel). But I have to admit if it gets people outdoors, then OK. I will say though that I'd feel a little emasculated doing the pre-set up camp site and watching someone in the next site do it himself, so, to each his own.

Kurt, when I worked education in Death Valley we purchased several large coleman tents for the visiting school groups. The first time I was putting up the tent I noticed this extra little flap that I had never seen in any tent I used growing up. I laughed and called it a doggy door, but then it was brought to my attention that this little door was for electrical cords for the radios, tvs, and those satellite dishes for inside the tent. I was shocked! To me if you aren't going to sleep listening to nature (usually not heard in busy campgrounds) you aren't camping. When I go into the backcountry, I often don't even take a tent, just sleeping under a tarp so I don't miss any part of nature.

Ranger Holly

There are a lot of "camping lite" experiences out there. There are the so-called "tent cabins" where most of the stuff is provided and semi-permanent. A lot of concession or NPS employee lodging is of the same type.

Some people do hard core backpacking which is self-contained with all food (incl animal resistant containers), clothing, shelter, etc packed. Then there are things such as Yosemite's High Sierra Camps. There you get a tent cabin in the middle of the backcountry along with provided meals. Once you've got the reservation, no backcountry permit is needed. They provide most of the stuff needed except for towels and sleep sacks (I guess one can bring a small sleeping bag). This makes it possible for people to overnight in the backcountry with only a decent sized daypack with maybe extra clothes, snacks, etc. They provide dinner then breakfast, followed by a takeaway lunch if ordered. They've even got hot showers on a water available basis.


Listening to nature? Got plenty of that at Upper Pines in Yosemite. The birds at 6 in the morning make it next to impossible to sleep unless heavily sedated. That and the harassment techniques (paintball guns, rubber bullets from shotguns, and pyrotechnics) employed by the bear management teams.

Why would anyone be asleep after 6 a.m.? Early morning is the best part of the day, especially in most national parks.

I think the nighttime is best - so much is happening! So many animals come out at night to feed and hunt. And high-elevation stargazing has got to be the greatest show on Earth.

If you can stand one more comment from me, I'd like to say how mystifying it is to me to see the huge RV's complete with TV, internet, all the comforts of home at the campground. It's like bringing your house with you! IMO that's not camping. And when I go camping I don't care to hear their generators or their loud music, thanks very much. I like my gadgets and all - i'm still learning how to use my GPS, for example - but as far as I'm concerned, i go camping to lighten my burdens. Why on Earth would anyone want to tote it all along?

Asleep after 6 AM? Well if you're doing that late night stargazing until midnight, you might want to sleep until 8-9 AM. Plus the sound of bear harassment techniques may wake one up in the middle of the night. It's still pretty difficult since much of the campground is already awake and making plenty of noise since it's no longer "quiet hours". I've been making breakfast between 9-10 AM and there are plenty of other people just getting up.

I like early morning, but I now make most of my visits with someone who isn't much of an early riser.

The reason that Great Smokies does not charge an entrance fee is due to a clause in the TN donation of the land encompassing Newfound Gap Road (the main road between Cherokee and Gatlinburg) and Little River Road (the road between Sugarlands and Cades Cove) that prohibits charging a toll on those roads. A toll is considered a fee and therefore Congress could not decide to establish an entrance fee without an amendment to the donation made by the state of TN. That amendment could only be made by the state of TN.

Gives "roughing it" a whole new meaning, doesn't it!