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Traveler's View: Rethink National Park Pass Fees


The fee structure for the annual American the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Lands Recreation Passes needs to be revised.

Interior Department officials need to rethink the fees that are charged for annual park passes.

The current fee structure just doesn't make sense, and works at odds with the National Park Service's stated desire to see younger generations fall in love with the National Park System.

It was back in 2006 that the old $50 annual parks pass was phased out by the Bush administration in favor of the $80 America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Lands Recreation Pass. At the time, then-Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett called the pass "a cost-effective and easy option for those who plan to visit multiple federal recreation sites."

That might be so, but the rates for the passes need to be revised.

Why charge anyone who has reached 62 years old (or three years below the Internal Revenue Service's currently recognized retirement age) just $10 for a lifetime pass to all 394 units in the system, and at the same time charge someone just starting out their adult life $80 for the same pass with another significant difference: it expires 12 months later?

While we at the Traveler generally frown on park entrance fees, it's obvious that they're not going to go away anytime soon. But they could be made more equitable. Indeed, adjusting these fees could very possibly increase revenues for the National Park Service while possibly encouraging more young adults to visit the parks.

Let's look at some numbers.

In 2010, purchases of the annual $10 interagency senior pass raised $4,956,076, while sales of the annual $80 pass raised $20,327,810. Doubling the seniors' pass to $20 could turn that $4.9 million into $10 million. Do away with the "lifetime" duration of the pass and the numbers jump higher.

True, if you returned the cost of the annual parks pass back to $50, the annual revenue theoretically would fall to around $12.7 million. But that's not as significant as it might seem.

Using 2010's income figures, those changes -- upping the senior pass fee to $20 for a one-year pass and reducing the annual pass fee to $50 -- on the face of things would trim the Park Service's annual take to $22.7 million from $25.2 million. But if the senior pass were both increased to $20 and had to be renewed every year, the paper loss most likely would turn into a gain.

The guess here, too, is that a drop in the annual pass from $80 to $50 very likely would spur more annual pass sales, too, and so the chance of an overall decline in pass revenues would vanish.

If the National Park Service truly is concerned about declining park visitation and younger generations losing interest in the parks, charging those under 62 $80 for an annual pass is not the way to solve either of those concerns.

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Really?  You are comparing the park fees to Disney World fees.  Talk about apples to oranges.  Disney world is a commercial venture that builds and maintains atractions.  The Park Service administers our lands for the enjoyment of us and our future generations.  The question I ask is what are we getting for these increased fees?  Using Yellowstone as an example, we see a lot of road construction.  One project in particular routes the road away from wery scenic areas from Cascade Falls North towards Norris Geyser Basin.  Great, went from a nice canyon ride to a trip through more lodgepole pine monoculture.  This project took all the enjoyment out of this ride in the name of efficiency.  While these expenses are continuous, are they fixing the trails that are in disrepair like the trail to the bottom of Tower Falls?  NO!  Can I still use the roads in winter on a snowmobile?  NO (unless in a guided tour).  I find that most of the parks management and funding is used to get us in and get us out.  I don't see lots of funding used to enhance our enjoyment of the Parks Resources.  At todays Park rates, there is little advantage to buying an $80 pass unless you live next door or do an annual tour of the parks.

Yeah - I understand the idea that perhaps those who are younger might not necessarily have as much means to pay. However - it really does depend on individual circumstances.

I would note that we have a local nonprofit theater company that has a special "30-BELOW" special where those 30 or younger can purchase half-priced tickets for most performances. I don't know how something like that could be translated into an NPS fee structure. I would say that while I have taken advantage of visiting federal recreation areas with someone with a lifetime senior pass, there was something about it that seemed a little strange. I'm not of that age and somehow by traveling with someone who is, I essentially get in for free. Once I even got a special (7-day) reentry pass because I entered with a senior and we were splitting up with myself planning on returning on my own later. I'm thinking the disabled pass make make sense in that one may be accompanying someone who needs some sort of assistance, but the senior pass may cover people aren't necessarily at the point where they need assistance.

Public Lands recreation is not a product.

Here's a park area, Fort Scott National Historic Site, that rethought its fee structure:

For the first time in 24 years, visitors to the Fort Scott National Historic Site will not be charged fees to enter the park.

The site, a unit of the National Park Service, recently discontinued admission fees that have been in place since 1987 and will now allow members of the public to visit the site free of charge. After careful analysis of administrative costs associated with the collection of entrance fees, it was determined that costs exceeded the amount of funds collected.

The problems the park cited were the high cost of background investigations for people who collected the fees, and the amount of time that the money that comes back to the park from fee collections can be carried over. The superintendent said it was difficult to ever have enough money for projects they really needed.

"It became a challenge sometimes to find enough money to do something you really needed done," the superintendent told the Fort Scott Tribune.

You can read the full story at this site.



Fort Scott NHS will continue to offer regularly scheduled interpretive activities including living history, education programs, special events and daily guided tours during the summer. Site hours are 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.

I look for NPS sites near all my travels and knowing I will get in free if I decide I have time to visit increases the chance that I will. Just like any place else with a “yearly” pass, I’m sure the parks make money off every person they get through the gates no matter how they do it once they hit the gift shop or any food vendor.

 It's not like you're visiting Disneyland. The NPS doesn't own those shops or businesses, and the amount the NPS gets may be minimal. There's been criticism over the years about how little the NPS gets out of those businesses, which often have a captive customer base with few competing options. They have required more over the years, but I suspect that has resulted in price increases. I've certainly visited many NPS with no concessionaires, which means no additional revenue for the park.

They're not really running on any kind of self-sufficient revenue model. The National Park Service is primarily funded off of tax revenues.

But I still feel very strongly that either all parks should charge admission or none should. It's a matter of fairness. The amount isn't the point (and I can see why the large parks should charge more than the small ones), but it should be all or nothing. Period.

 If you primarily visit one or two units with relatively low entrance fees, then it can make sense to purchase the site-specific annual passes. I mentioned Muir Woods NM with its $5 per person entrance fee, but a $20 annual pass that is good for an entire party in the same vehicle. A group of 5 in the same car more than breaks even with the annual pass for just one visit.

You also need to take into account the cost of placing a uniformed ranger to collect the fee. If a particular site is only collecting $5 with relatively low visitation, then it could cost more to have that NPS employee staffing the entrance kiosk than is collected in fees. I remember visiting a site in Hawaii, and reading that often the kiosk wasn't always staffed because the numbers were crunched. I recall over at Death Valley, there were no entrance stations and the fee was paid (on the honor system) at any visitor center. At a Pinnacles NM, the entrance station was unstaffed and the fee was supposed to be collected at the visitor center/campground store. I do recall at Arches NP, I saw an after hours electronic device for fee collection. It accepted credit cards and had options to purchase various passes. I don't believe it issued anything more than a receipt, where any pass purchased would be collected later when the entrance booth was staffed.

I believe at many of sites, there has been a conscious effort to not impose a fee because of the costs of collection. I'm pretty sure it would get impractical at Golden Gate NRA, with some people just coming in to buy stuff, along with dozens of non-contiguous sites.

Buying the pass is not a lot different from buying a yearly membership at the local Zoo or Museum. Some years you visit enough to come out ahead and some you don’t but in the end part of the cost is you know you are supporting something you care about and reaching into your pocket for your pass or membership card seems easier than paying a fee.   

I look for NPS sites near all my travels and knowing I will get in free if I decide I have time to visit increases the chance that I will. Just like any place else with a “yearly” pass, I’m sure the parks make money off every person they get through the gates no matter how they do it once they hit the gift shop or any food vendor.

Last year my wife and I traveled through AZ and UT hitting may of the big parks and several small ones.  We more than paid for the pass.  Living in Upstate NY I don’t always get a
full payback but I still look at the pass as a good investment each year.

BTW-my local Zoo’s annual basic Membership is close to $70 and I am pretty sure the basic membership at both of the local Museums is over $80 per year eash,  so I think the NP Pass is a pretty good deal. 

I buy a pass every year because I live 2 hours drive from Paradise on Mt. Rainier (45 minutes from Carbon River), and 2.5 hours drive from Olympic, as well as shorter distances from several National Wildlife Refuges. 

Basically, what it does is give me permission to go to those parks whenever I want.  If I had to pay every time, I wouldn't be able to justify it.  I more than break even on the pass.

If I was only able to use a parks pass on my one big trip every summer, I wouldn't buy one.

But I still feel very strongly that either all parks should charge admission or none should.  It's a matter of fairness.  The amount isn't the point (and I can see why the large parks should charge more than the small ones), but it should be all or nothing.  Period.

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