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.

Comments

I agree. When the pass was $50 I would buy it annually whether I used it enough to offset the cost or not (often it did not). Now I never purchase it becaus there is not an instance that I would even come close to attaining that goal and I vacation each year in a NPS site. I would purchase it again regularly if the fee were decreased.

Shall I lead off?
While I fundamentally differ with the NPT stance on entrance fees in general I was against the decision to remove the annual fee option from Day 1. (As a reminder to you supporters of "open access", entrance fees are about as easy to circumvent as most other rules in and around the parks from years past such as designated campsite use, weapons, trail use protocol, general courtesy for fellow users and for the environment itself to name but a few.) I make allowances for those who have attained Year 65....for all I care let 'em in free anywhere, anytime. But with budget constraints being what they are any and all sources of funding should be scrutinized and the 25% increase (and related regulation changes) was simply uncalled for. In many areas of the country visiting multiple sites within the typical vacation period of 7 days can be a logictical nightmare, at least for those of us who spend more than an hour or two per site, so if the original intent of eliminating the Annual was to swell the coffers through additional revenues "due" the system through these multiple site visit fees I seriously question the logic of the thought process that conceived that plan. And with the current state of the national economy and related costs of travel the NPS would do itself well to immediately assemble some alternative packages to entice the public both for the current and the future good of the system's fiscal well-being.
Speaking of things that could be changed, could you give me a captcha I have half a prayer of reading without feeling like I've been ingesting some wild peyote? PLEASE???

Lone Hiker -- so it's the Peyote? Dang. And all this time I thought it was my eyes.

Just to the right of the Captcha box are three little emblems. If you click the top one, it will bring up another set of letters. Click it enough times and you'll be bound to finally find one you can read.

(I had to click only twice this time . . . )

Definitely. Last autumn I went on a roadtrip that included several NPS units over the course of several weeks. It was cheaper to buy individual passes everywhere I went.

Great article. I actually don't mind the fees, but I agree with you on making them more equitable.

While I don't wholly disagree with your point, I'm not sure you've fully accounted for the effect of raising the price of the senior pass. If lowering the price of the regular pass will increase the number sold (and it should), then raising the price of the senior pass AND making it expire in a year will reduce the the number sold in any given year. Furthermore, a certain number of the 1 year senior passes would not be renewed year after year.

I also don't know that the fees currently charged are all that much of a hurdle for park visitors, young or old. Entrance fees of $2 or $3 person or even $25 a carload at the bigger parks pale in comparison to the cost of transportation, lodging, meals etc. And $80 for a year's worth of visits isn't really very much. Disney World charges $80 a DAY per PERSON and they don't have any problem attacting young people. And Disney's annual pass runs $600. I know that's an apple/orange comparison but my point is that even at today's rates, the parks are a bargain.

Yes, I would prefer paying $50 vs $80 for a year's pass, or even have no fees at all. But the money is, after all, going to the NPS to help run the parks. So I feel I get my money's worth whether I can avoid $80 worth on entrance fees or not.

I wrote a comment on this subject on 3-9-11, noting that Congress's need to provide money for bankers and bailouts leaves the NPS chronically underfunded. Interestingly, this was followed on 3-28 by an article about Congress slashing the NPS budget. Obviously, since the NPS can't make campaign contributions this is not a situation that will change any time soon. It seems to me that the only way to properly fund America's greatest attractions is to charge fees commensurate with places like Disneyworld, King's Island, Cedar Point and others. A few minutes online will demonstrate to anyone what an incredible bargain we're getting with the Parks. Much as I hate this idea, I have no doubt that the money would be well spent since the NPS seems to be one of the few government entities that is actually worth what we pay for it.

Thoughtful article. I have always supported reasonable entrance and camping fees to our parks. By reasonable I mean 15-20 dollars. I agree us seniors get a heck of deal, we could pay more as suggested by your analysis. We should lower fees for the annual pass, no question about it. The parks our part of the "commons", access should not be determined by ability to pay, at least in my own view of the issue. There is a disturbing tendency for our elected leaders to make up budget shortfalls primarily on the backs of the lower income groups, including young people just getting started in life, etc. Much of this problem could be solved by revising the current tax laws including the elimination of the President Bush tax cuts. I personally think the economic pie is being concentrated to an alarming extent. Statistics are always open to interpretation but, for example, in 1976 the lower 90% of the population owned half the wealth, by 1997 their share was down to 27%. In 2000, the top 1% of American households had financial wealth greater than that of the bottom 95% combined. In 1998 the net worth of just one Amercican, Mr. Bill Gates, at 45 billion, was greater than the bottom 45% percent of all American Households combined (stats from "Unequal Protection" by Thom Hartman). Whatever the stats maybe, there is an alarming trend in the distribution of wealth and its not just an American phenomenon anymore. Our parks and public lands are a great gift, a real extension of the concept of the "commons" in its broadest sense. Please excuse the rant, but thank you "Traveler" for focusing on the issue.

I enjoy buying the annual Pass and I usually plan to do my next vacation in 11 months and that way I can get 2 years worth out of my pass. I say raise my Taxes and lower fees but unfortunately this is up to congress. Even if they raise taxes, they do not choose to spend the money the way we might like.

Honestly, I think that the $10 fee is so ridiculous we might as well let seniors in for free.

As a southern Californian, the pass is a bit more expensive than getting the $35 National Forest Adventure Pass, and going to Joshua Tree several times a year (at $15 per day).

No, it's not a good economical decision. The price is probably too high for anyone who isn't doing a cross-country road trip. But it's not that far from being a wash.

It'd be nice to get more added value, like discounts at concessions, or entry on limited access days... now THAT would be worth something!

If all you want is to visit a few sites, then you can get passes for a specific unit( (or combination thereof). I know Muir Woods NM has a $20 annual pass, and it's good for everyone travelling in the same vehicle. Without some sort of pass, it's $5 per person. Five people in a car and it's more than covered in one visit. The strange irony is that an annual pass at John Muir NHS is also valid at Muir Woods, but I thought only cost $15 if you get it there.

http://www.nps.gov/muwo/planyourvisit/feesandreservations.htm

In Hawaii they have an annual pass that is valid at three units.

I have used an annual pass at Forest Service sites. I think it would also be valid in lieu of parking fees with a "hang tag". Mt St Helens NVM charges $8 per adult for entry to the Johnston Ridge Observatory. I don't know if it was worth more to get FS site access. I've barely visited other land agency sites that charge fees.

Also - I remember seeing the back of an older "Golden Age" pass. In addition to the agencies listed on the current passes, it said that it was valid for recreational fees for the Tennessee Valley Authority. I'm wondering what their policy is now.

Here's an idea to consider: I am not in favor of eliminating all entrance fees, but I think the fees should be limited to cover the cost of their collection. The entrance stations at many parks are some of the Service's most valuable law enforcement and visitor contact resources. The entrance station ranger gets to see and talk to everyone who enters the park. They are too valuable to give up.

Rick

You've got to be kidding me. Use the fees for the cost of collecting fees? So the purpose of collecting fees is to provide employment for fee collectors. Of course we could eliminate fee collectors and charge nothing under the same partial train of thought.

I give a lot of talks on the national parks to senior-heavy groups. I always ask them how they feel about fees. They unanimously would like to pay higher fees. Most of the seniors also like the idea of "young people" (variously defined) cheaper or free access, for the same reasons many people mentioned above.

Don't forget, only about 1/3 of the parks charge an entrance fee. This is the biggest problem with fees. The money goes to the parks that collect the fees - which is not necessarily the same parks that need the money. Some parks cannot charge fees because it is not practical or they are prohibited from doing so. Those parks are left to fend for themselves in the era of diminishing budgets.

I think that those who support these fees beleive they are well spent on the parks they see that have many visitors and NEED additional funding. Where most of the money goes, however, is actually to typical government wasteful administrative positions and initiatives, to bloated regional offices and external programs. When this agency sees new money, it doesn't go towards more rangers, better facilities or basic backlog needs; it goes towards expanding programs far from parks, where expensive travel and conferences are held to congratulate each other on ideas that have no meaning to the park visitor wondering why they haven't seen a uniformed employee, or find bathrooms and trails in disrepair.

I agree - the park service needs to adjust its fees to be more equitable and raise funding, but I am against any raising of the current fee structure as long as new funding is used for park barrel programming and sites that get little visitation. Fix what's there and remember the end user of heavily used parks and recreation areas - I'll be glad to pay more if I see the money spent there.

I have another brilliant idea. Figure out a way to circumvent the legalities that prevent the park service from charging fees at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So far as I know, it's a) the only major national park that *doesn't* charge fees, and b) the most-visited unit in the national park system. This is incredibly unfair to the rest of the parks, and the visitors to the rest of those parks. Not to mention the fact that GSM *needs* the winnowing that charging fees causes. That park is being loved to death.

Yes, I understand how that "no-fee" clause got put into the park's mandate in the first place, but it's been almost 100 years. It's long past time for that to change.

We need to clarify a few points, Megaera. (1) Great Smoky Mountains National Park is not the most heavily-visited of the 394 units in the National Park System. Although Great Smoky attracted a hefty 9.4 million visitors last year, that tally was eclipsed by both Blue Ridge Parkway (14.5 million) and Golden Gate National Recreation Area (14.2 million). It's true that Great Smoky's attendance ranked first among the 58 National Park-designated NPS units. (2) Great Smoky is not the only major national park that doesn't charge admission fees. None of the nine leading national parks by attendance charges an admission fee. Again, your statement holds true for the 58 National Park-designated NPS units.(3) This is perhaps a niggling point, but it's been three-quarters of a century since the state of Tennessee transferred Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road) to the park, and while that is indeed a long time, it is not "almost a century."

Regarding Bill's comment about "bloated" regional offices. Where is that information coming from? According to the NPS Budget, in FY2000 the regional offices had 1068 FTE. In 2010, they had 921. Don't see a lot of bloat in there. Plus, with the increase in requirements for things like IT, contracting and purchasing regulations, and other complex isuues, the small parks (which are the majority of the parks) need the expertise that the regional offices provide. If anything, the central offices need MORE people in order to help the parks.

The fee program is either politicized, or it's not. If it is, let's be clear about it. We choose to subisidize certain population groups, and not others. Seniors get a discount, like at Dennys. I'm not sure why we subsidize those with the largest motor homes, and the most time on their hands to visit national parks. But so be it.

The fees for passes are arbitrarily set for marketing purposes. There's very little marketing research behind them.

The problem with the fee program for the NPS is that it lacks a goal. For the rest of the world, fees are charged to cover expenses and create profit for future expansion and operations. Raise your fees too high, people don't come, you're out of business. Put them too low, you're out of business.

For the rest of the world, such as Disney, Hilton, and every private enterprise, fee structures are set up to allow individuals to pay the highest individual rate possible. Try booking an airline ticket. You can pay a fortune and buy a first-class refundable ticket the day before the flight. Or you can get a seat on the same flight that's not refundable, not roomy.

If the NPS was mandated to cover 100% of its operations via collected fees, you'd see some thought behind the fee program, and the way parks are managed.

For now, it's one person after another coming up with weird philosophical statements on how much is right to charge people to visit parks. Because the system lacks a standard, all of these points can be made without having to worry about a measure of validity.

PS: This isn't a recommendation to cover operations with fee money. That's not possible given the fact that the NPS doesn't control its operations. There are some sites that would never make money, and advertising to increase visitation might be in conflict with the mission of preservation.

Megaera:
I have another brilliant idea. Figure out a way to circumvent the legalities that prevent the park service from charging fees at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So far as I know, it's a) the only major national park that *doesn't* charge fees, and b) the most-visited unit in the national park system.
If you're referring to units with a "National Park" designation that are heavily visited (I'm not including some of the remote NPs in Alaska or other places) then Hot Springs NP in Arkansas doesn't have an entrance fee. There are others, although I don't think they're heavily visited.

Also - what's really considered a "recreational visit". I know at Golden Gate NRA, most of the visits aren't much different than a local person visiting a city park. They also have several businesses, including a management school, a sporting goods store, storage rental, a bowling alley, etc. I wonder if those visits are recorded as a recreational visit. At GSMNP, I'd think a some of the recorded visits are people just traveling through.

The numbers you give mean nothing without more info - Regional office employees are not GS-05's or WG-05's working seasonal without benefits, (as the vast majority of those in uniform in parks are) cleaning bathrooms, welcoming visitors or fixing trails. Those "921" employees you mention are GS-12's and above, pushing 100K, and acting primarily in positions that spend most of their time and efforts justifying the existence of their own jobs. Add on that a hefty travel budget, new "initiatives", conference attendance and a focus on areas outside of current park borders, and you get the "bloated" aspects. If they did an audit and only kept those functions that do provide the experise you speak of, there would be far fewer inside those regional offices.

I am all in support of necessary adminstrative needs that support the park units - but park backlogs and service aspects need to come first when distributing funds.

Here's a real life example of why it is a flawed system. My girlfriend and I were planning on visiting at least 11 NPS units this year. The $80 pass made me do the math; I thought for sure that I would still come out ahead but was just curious. Because so many units are "no fee" or only $6 or so, it wasn't even close. As a matter of fact, it was still even less than the old $50 pass. If it was still $50 I never even would have hesitated. We've been to 3 so far this year and it has cost us $12 plus a $5 donation. What really amazed us was Ft. Mantanzas which was "no fee" (we gave the donation here) yet required a water taxi (2 extra Rangers, gas, boat, repairs, etc.) to get to the fort. It seems the management in the NPS finance dept is lacking to say the least.

Blackfeet Dreamer:
Here's a real life example of why it is a flawed system. My girlfriend and I were planning on visiting at least 11 NPS units this year. The $80 pass made me do the math; I thought for sure that I would still come out ahead but was just curious. Because so many units are "no fee" or only $6 or so, it wasn't even close. As a matter of fact, it was still even less than the old $50 pass. If it was still $50 I never even would have hesitated. We've been to 3 so far this year and it has cost us $12 plus a $5 donation. What really amazed us was Ft. Mantanzas which was "no fee" (we gave the donation here) yet required a water taxi (2 extra Rangers, gas, boat, repairs, etc.) to get to the fort. It seems the management in the NPS finance dept is lacking to say the least.
It makes more sense if you're making a trip in the west where the fees tend to be higher.

Yosemite and SEKI are $20. Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Yellowstone/Grand Teton (joint admission) are $25. If you stay more than 7 days, you theoretically need to pay an additional entrance fee when you exit or return. It can actually work out if you plan a grand tour. Around Florida it might not make as much sense.

I remember buying one on a single trip. I calculated all the federal recreations fees I would have paid for that trip, and it was $56. Didn't quite make up the $80. Then later on I racked up at least $70 worth of fees before the pass expired, so it made more sense. The other thing was that I would make an excuse to schedule a visit somewhere where I could use that pass. That may be one of the incentives to issuing the pass.

It's also perfectly legal to give/lend a standard pass to someone else. It can be anyone. It doesn't have to be a relative. It can be a friend. The pass has room for two signatures, and it can be for anyone. So you could easily just let someone else "borrow" the pass if travel plans don't overlap.

The statistics I gave were the ones I was given by a ranger in the park at the time I was there eleven years ago. That's what I get for not verifying them, I guess.

But my original point still stands. The most heavily-visited units in the park system need to be contributing. And they're not.

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.

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.

Megaera:
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.

shaff01:
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.

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.

Public Lands recreation is not a product.

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.

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.