Fee-free days at national park units have become an annual event following their introduction in 2004-05. The freebies have not only continued, but have been expanded from two days (Public Land Day and Veterans Day) initially to the current 17 days.
The expansion started in 2009 in an effort to encourage additional visitation, promote the parks, and offer families a chance to enjoy our country’s heritage and natural areas despite a sour economy.
The offset, of course, is the revenue loss by parks sorely in need of more, not less funding. Jane Moore, who manages the National Park Service's Recreation Fee Program, estimates lost revenues for 2012 of from $3.5 million to $5 million, although she notes several factors complicate any effort at determining an accurate estimate.
The Park Service selected the current fee-free dates on non-peak season weekends in an effort to minimize revenue losses while at the same time offering folks an extra reason to visit and enjoy the parks, especially during each April’s National Park Week.
In any case, the loss of revenue is a relative drop in the bucket for the NPS, which had a 2012 budget of approximately $3 billion.
As an aside, the National Park Foundation sells sponsorships for NPS fee-free days. According to the organization’s web site, sponsorship for National Park Week was available for $3.5 million. At the lower end, sponsorship of the fee-free Veterans’ Day weekend could be had for only $1 million. This seems an odd promotion, something like selling sponsorships for Arbor Day or Mother’s Day. Still, there’s reason to celebrate if fee-free sponsorships divert corporate funds away from Super PACs and funnel them toward the national parks.
In any case, we’re interested in your opinion of the pros and cons of fee-free days. Is the revenue loss offset by additional goodwill and publicity, or should the program be tanked?