Is There A Thaw Coming On the Three-Year-Old Freeze on National Park Fees?

Yosemite National Park, Tenaya Lake, copyright Kurt Repanshek

It is going to get more expensive to enjoy such national park settings as Tenaya Lake in Yosemite National Park? NPT file photo.

Three years ago, then-National Park Service Director Mary Bomar placed a freeze on most fees associated with visiting the national parks. Now, though, it appears that freeze might be thawing.

Recently, officials at Colorado National Monument announced a proposal to increase their entrance and camping fees beginning in 2011, and Lake Mead National Recreation Area also is studying fee increases.

Back when then-Director Bomar instituted the freeze, some wondered whether it was related to the country's economic conditions, or politics. A memo she sent out to the field at the time referenced the Federal Lands and Recreation Enhancement Act, not the economic climate.

"The Recreation Fee Program is under scrutiny and to avoid public controversy, fee increases charged through fee authorities other than the Federal Lands and Recreation Enhancement Act should be kept to a minimum," the memo read.

Part of that "scrutiny" that Director Bomar mentioned could have been legislation introduced to Congress late in 2007 that aimed to limit the fees the government could charge for recreation on public lands. That legislation, an effort to eliminate entrance fees charged on national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands, has reappeared in Congress, where senators from Montana and Idaho are pushing to get a hearing on their bill by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Now, just as Director Bomar allowed regional Park Service directors to seek exemptions to the freeze on entrance fees and so-called "amenity" fees (which can apply to such things things as ranger programs, camping, and other visitor experiences in the parks), current Director Jon Jarvis is willing to consider requests for exemptions.

"The general moratorium on NPS FLREA fee increases is still in place but is reviewed/affirmed annually by the NPS leadership," said Jane Moore, the Park Service's fee program manager. "A decision was made this year to give NPS regional directors the authority to allow parks with compelling reasons to do outreach/engage the public related to possible 'future' fee changes."

Rationales for increasing fees could range from not wanting to undercut commercial entities outside parks to a need for revenues to fund projects within the parks, according to Ms. Moore.

"Some parks have not increased rates for a very long time, some parks have camping and other amenity rates so low that they unfairly compete with nearby private entities, sometimes a new visitor activity is offered like opening a lighthouse and the park would like to charge a fee to provide special guided tours," she said. "Sometimes a park wants to join the National Recreation Reservation Service (NRRS) and the level of the fee will not cover the contractor costs as well as provide needed fee revenue for other
planned projects."

At Colorado National Monument, Superintendent Joan Anzelmo said fees at her park haven't budged in years; entrance fees haven't gone up in five years, she said, and camping fees haven't changed in more than 15. Under the proposal, it would cost $10 per car and $5 per hiker/cyclist to enter the redrock monument that stands in western Colorado. Current fees are $7 and $4, respectively. While no decision has been made on the proposed increases, Superintendent Anzelmo points out that surrounding communities have been "generally supportive" of the proposal.

Back in Washington, Ms. Moore noted that, "The few proposed fee increases are only the 'exceptions' and must go through a rigorous public participation process to ensure that the public/key constituents are supportive. If favorable public response occurs, the park and the region must still get approval from the director of the NPS to proceed with implementing the fee change."

At the same time, Ms. Moore explained that while many parks were getting ready to revamp their fee structures three years ago under fee schedule revisions approved by the Washington office, their efforts were placed in limbo when Director Bomar issued the freeze.

"There are a number of parks whose rates are very low, which also inflates their collection cost ratio and hampers their ability to generate additional fee funds for projects," she said.

How gateway communities to parks might respond to efforts to increase fees remains to be seen. Back in 2007 there was push-back from communities around Yosemite, Crater Lakes, and Olympic national parks, as well as at Lava Beds National Monument that effectively halted the increases. At the same time, little fanfare was made when fees were increased at Zion, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton national parks.

It shouldn't be overlooked that while there seems to be some softening in increasing fees across the park system, the administration still has salted a number of entrance-fee-free dates into the calendar to lure folks out to the parks this year.

"We do recognize that the decision to limit fee increases is the right thing to do with the way the economy is going," said Ms. Moore. "The NPS leadership also decided that additional fee free days (National Park Week, and two additional fee free weekends this summer (June 4-5 and Aug 14-15) in addition to the already established fee free interagency days (Public Lands Day and Veterans Day) would be an important gesture to offer to the public and to attract new audiences."

Comments

Would raising fees reduce the number of visitors? Is there any history of that?

Anecdotally, one could argue that higher fees are an impediment to visitation.

If you look at last summer's entrance-fee-free weekends, a number of parks reported substantially higher visitation. But you also have to remember that one of those weekends was Father's Day weekend. And weather can impact visitation, too.

As referenced in the story, too, communities around some parks that considered raising fees in 2007 argued against them, saying they would be a detriment to visitation. And others would say that if someone is planning a vacation to Yellowstone, they're not going to quibble over whether the entrance fee is $20, $25, or $50.

It costs a family of 4 about $220 per day to enter Disney World. How many vist every year? It would cost the same family of 4 $25 to enter Yellowstone or Grand Teton for 7 straight days. $20 for 7 days entrance at Yosemite or Acadia. American National Parks are a bargain!

Wait…. The reply above, suggesting a comparison in costs of National Park entrance fees to those at Disney World begs for a deeper review. Hopefully this poster is not a member of the National Park Service or one of its concessionaires.

It is my hope that one day soon the NPS might shift their focus away from ways to increase visitation and again talk of “carrying capacities” which might protect our parks. National Parks have been referred to as "time capsules for future generations”. Any discussion that compares Yosemite National Park, for the sake of example, to some other form of public entertainment is so far off the mark that perhaps the topic needs to be discussed yet again. After all the debates that led up to the old Yosemite Valley Plan, etc., have occurred thus far since the late 1970s, which I participated in, suggests that perhaps we are clearly no further than square one on this topic. Of course, if the poster simply said it to make some people crazy, the succeeded with me. Lol. My chain is pulled.

At some point I hope we can move away from ways to maximize income at our parks, and focus on what it will take to maximize preservation and protection, while also balancing recreation, so as to enhance the experience. Former NPS Director Newton B. Drury once succinctly stated "We have no money; we can do no harm. If comparing Yosemite to Disneyland helps to justify the increase of gate fees, something is wrong here.

It may have been overstated in the past, but these parks don’t belong only to us. They are left in our care, for future generations. Things that we do to encourage visitation now - often have the reversion effect by denigrating the experience for future visitors. I hope we always remember David Brower’s comments about how Yosemite, when he said, “The National Park Service, which has heretofore cherished Yosemite, seems intent on converting this temple into a profit center, with pricey hotels, scant camping, few modest accommodations, wider roads to field bigger diesel buses, ecological roadside mayhem, atmospheric damage and requiring people who want to celebrate Yosemite Valley to park outside the park in various still unspoiled places that are soon to be paved.”

I will bet that Brower’s statement mirrored the call that prompted Yosemite’s original preservation when President Lincoln signed the proclamation to preserve The Valley from those at that time who wanted to make it a profit center, way back then. Frederick Law Olmsted warned then that "the slight harm which the few hundred visitors of this year might do, if no care were taken to prevent it, would not be slight, if it should be repeated by millions." His concern about overuse of the park was ignored by the Board of Commissioners, and the Report never reached the state legislature, as some may recall. There are always those who feel a need to increase revenue. There is always some justification for it. No such warning will be made for Disney World.

Where is the true heart of the Park Service these days? Leaving management decisions such as these to local parks, specifically Yosemite, enables them to incrementally implement their flawed V.E.R.P. method of governing under the disguise of darkness. Yosemite is in the middle of a multi-year study to determine a hopefully implement a “carrying capacity”, though you might not know it, as these words are almost never uttered by Yosemite’s Park Planners or management.

The new Park Plan could be a possible blueprint for other park planners, moving forward. This study will sculpt a new NPS Mission, where one would hope would never again compare a Yosemite visit with one to Disney World. When will the NPS continue serious "carrying capacity" discussions?

Whoa Big Fella! Way too serious. I realize that National Parks and Disney World are apples and oranges. My comments were directed to Volpes question and were intented to make the point that if people are willing to pay what they pay to visit Disney, then fees are not the influence on visitation that his question seems to presume. Thats all, no need to read more into them. Obviously, I did not make the point.

Yes, the National Parks have problems. And there are as many different ways to address those problems as there are people looking at the problems. Yes, we all have opinions about what would make them better, or what their purpose is, or how best to meet the mission. It is always very easy to look at what is wrong with something. Some times it helps to look at what is right with those same things.

Anyway my friend, have a wonderful Holiday weekend. Please go enjoy a place that is special to you.

Thank you for the kind words. Didn't mean to go off. Please don't take anything personally.

I did have a great Holiday weekend after all. We went camping....and found yet another beautiful nature experience in a campground other than at a National Park, a place with next to no budget...

Mark, Nothing taken personally. Your comments did remind me of a quote from Edward Abbey, which took we a while to find.

"One final paragraph of advise: Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am-a reluctant entusiast...a part time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get outthere and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and i promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards."

Do some of those things he mentions (having fun, running rivers, climbing the mountains, contemplate the stillness) with someone who doesn't get this and might be one of those deskbound folks mentioned and you will do much more for our special places.

Glad you had a great weekend!

I disagree with Ms. Moore that parks would "unfairly compete with nearby private entities". Private businesses are out to make a profit, and that's their primary focus. Supposedly the focus of the national parks is to safeguard the natural resources for the enjoyment of future generations. They are not out to "compete" with the water parks, mini golf courses and outfitters - they don't need to, and shouldn't have to. It seems to me the worth of a national park should not be measured in terms of how well it can compete with its profit-seeking neighbors, many of whom would not exist without that park in the first place. Privatizing a government entity in order to increase revenues doesn't work very well either - the U.S. Postal Service can attest to that.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at her position though - I've lived and worked in Washington long enough to recognize pinheaded bureaucratic groupthink when I see it. This lady really needs to get out of her cubicle. Hope the fresh air doesn't make her dizzy.

Bat, If you would check into the Recreation Fee legislation that authorizes the National Park Service to collect fees, I think you would find that Congress was and is concerned about the perception of unfair competition to private businesses from National Parks. The fee program does not just cover park entrance fees but also fees for campgrounds and other amenities that can also be provided in communities neighboring parks. You can bet, if a local buisness owner feels that his/her business is being undercut by a service or amenity provided in a park (rightly so or not), they will be on the phone to their Congress persons office to complain. You can also bet that someone in that Congress persons office will then be making contact with Ms. Moore, or someone in her office, to let her know that said Congress person is concerned about this perception of unfair competition.

If you and your bosses are continually hit with these concerns by members of Congress, who then threaten to withhold funds for other Agency or Department programs unless they get the answers they want, as I am sure Ms. Moore is, you would have some sensitivity to perceptions of unfair competition.