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Traveler's View: Congress, National Park Service Need To Restructure Fees For Centennial Celebration


"There is nothing so American as our National Parks... the fundamental idea behind the parks... is that the country belongs to the People." - Franklin D. Roosevelt

"It is the will of the nation as embodied in the act of Congress [in setting aside the Yosemite government reservation in 1864] that this scenery shall never be private property, but that like certain defensive points upon our coast it shall be solely for public purposes." -- Frederick Law Olmsted.

"The primary duty of the National Park Service is to protect the national parks and national monuments under its jurisdiction and keep them as nearly in their natural state as this can be done in view of the fact that access to them must be provided in order that they may be used and enjoyed. All other activities of the bureau must be secondary (but not incidental) to this fundamental function relating to care and protection of all areas subject to its control." -- Stephen Mather.

"Montani Semper Liberi"

It's a simple motto, "Mountaineers Are Always Free," that the state of West Virginia adopted in 1872. It's a theme Congress and the National Park Service should aspire to as the agency nears its centennial in 2016.

Simply put, the Park Service's fee system across the 398 units is miserably inconsistent. Part of the reason for that was the great disservice Congress did the public when it passed the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act in 2004 and told the Park Service to look for ways to make money off visitors.

Don't misunderstand. Fees can play a vital role in the National Park System. For many parks, dollars generated from entrance fees, tours of centuries-old cliff dwellings, and camping enable managers to cover gaps -- ever-growing gaps -- in congressional appropriations.

But as park managers reach for fees to cover those gaps, they threaten to push visitors away as they create startling inequities. And, according to the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, fees have an adverse impact on congressional funding; as fees have sprouted and gone up, federal appropriations have declined. Another view would suggest that as congressional funding has gone down, park managers have looked to fees to make up some of the shortage. Whichever the case, there's a lack of consistency when it comes to fees in the national parks.

* When you are charged a nightly fee for walking off into the woods and sleeping on the bare ground of Great Smoky Mountains National Park while motorists in their motorhomes and $50,000 SUVs can idle in line for free as they slowly negotiate the 11-mile loop of Cades Cove, it begs that officials reconsider their approach to fees.

In the Smokies, a wonderous mountain park in the Appalachian Range of Tennessee and North Carolina, there are more than 800 miles of trail to wander. This year park officials, citing a need for a better campsite reservation system and backcountry patrols, instituted a first-ever backcountry fee of $4 per person per night, capped at $20 per trip.

And yet, none of the 650,180 vehicles -- a number that surpassed the 2012 annual visitation of Theodore Roosevelt, Saguaro, Mammoth Cave, Mesa Verde, Canyonlands, and that of 265 other units of the National Park System, and which was more than 8.5 times greater than the number who walked into and camped in the Smokies' backcountry -- that circled Cades Cove last year was charged a fee.

Now, because the park doesn't charge an entrance fee (a point Park Service officials say the state of Tennessee exacted in return for donating land for the park), the park's budget must swallow any maintenance costs associated with those 650,180 vehicles that circled Cades Cove. Last year that dollar figure was $140,092; it covered road maintenance, custodial services for the Cable Mill/Abrams Falls Trail Head Comfort Station Maintenance, Cable Mill Grounds Maintenance, Water System Operations, and Wastewater System Operations.

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Why does the Park Service charge for this experience (Tiger Key, Everglades National Park, NPS photo)....

* When Yellowstone National Park budgets $125,000 per winter, or roughly $1,250 per person to keep Sylvan Pass safely open while that person pays just $20 to enter the park via a snowmobile or snowcoach, the need for either charging hundreds of dollars more for winter access through the East Entrance or shutting down the pass is obvious.

Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk says his average per person cost in winter to operate the park for visitors is $60. To get the East Entrance costs down to that level, over-snow traffic would have to increase more than 20 times, to 2,083 visitors per winter.

Now, not only is that $125,000 being budgeted for only about 100 visitors, but it pays for artillery rounds to be lobbed high onto the mountain flanks framing the pass to knock down avalanches. Can you name another park that has a bombing range?

* When Everglades National Park officials propose to charge a backcountry paddler or hiker four times what it costs a motorist and everyone in their rig to drive into the park day after day after day for a week, a top-to-bottom review of fees in the park is needed.

Park officials, who gave the public just 10 days this month to comment on the higher backcountry fees, justify boosting the backcountry permit fee from $10 to $12, and the per night user fee from $2 to $5, in part by saying their fees are below those charged on lands outside the national park. Now, they also note that it costs nearly $90,000 a year simply to process backcountry permits, and there are more costs for backcountry maintenance, law enforcement presence, and search-and-rescue. Permit fees in 2012, meanwhile, generated $48,000.

No proposals were made to increase the park's daily $10 entrance fee at the Homestead Entrance (which hasn't been increased since 1997), a fee good for a seven-day stay in Everglades National Park, or the $200 fee for commercial bus tours with more than 26 people, or for launching a boat ($5 for motorboat, $3 for canoe/kayak).

When a park counts 1.1 million visits in a year, as Everglades did in 2012, and fewer than 8,500 of those visitors went into the backcountry for an overnight, it would seem that bumping the entrance fee up $5 a car would provide more than enough revenues for both the backcountry and some front-country projects. And that $15 fee would at the same time still fall below the $25 per car charged at Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, and the $20 at Yosemite and Acadia, just to name four "more expensive" parks to enter.

There are more inequities in the Park Service's fee programs if you look around.

Two-hundred-and-sixty-five units of the 398-unit system don't charge any entrance fee. If you travel frequently to those parks that do charge fees, you can lessen the cost by buying an $80 America the Beautiful Pass that gets you into as many parks as many times as you want during a 12-month period. But that $80 fee applies to college students, who might be jobless and watching the balance on their student loans steadily grow, as well as struggling young couples and most everyone else up to age 62, when the fee plummets to just $10 fee for a lifetime pass even if you tour the parks in a $300,000 motorhome. And that pass also could earn you discounts of up to 50 percent on things like campground fees.

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...but not for contributing to maintain the road through Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park? NPS photo.

Now, there are economic, health, and philosophical reasons to seriously reorder the park system's fee programs.

Economically, fees potentially stand as a barrier to some who might otherwise plan a national park vacation. Those barriers cost the Park Service in terms of lost opportunities to connect Americans not only with the incredible vistas, experiences, and history found within the National Park System, but with healthier lifestyles, no small matter in a country where more than one-third of adults and approximately 17 percent of kids age 2 to 19 are obese.

Philosophically, the national parks supposedly are held in trust by Congress for the American people, who pay for them through their taxes. Yet the current fee system, especially entrance fees, is akin to having to pay a fee every time you want to enter your own home.

Those fees, both entrance and for camping, boating, scaling Half Dome, exploring cliff dwellings, climbing up the spiraling stairs of lighthouses, in many if not all cases can be traced back to Congress's passage of FLREA, (which, by the way, is up for renewal, but that's another story).

And the Park Service's headquarters compounds the problem by not dictating any uniformity in those fees. Why does it cost $4 per per person per night in the Smokies to backpack, $5 per person in Everglades, and a flat $25 for a group of friends in Yellowstone?  Why does it cost you $25 to drive through one of Yellowstone's entrance gates, yet just $10 to enter Everglades?

In the end, if there must be fees, put some equity into them. Don't charge someone who walks with a pack on their back or paddles a canoe or kayak and sleeps under the stars more than someone who drives into a park. Sure, backcountry search-and-rescue missions can be expensive (though part of the cost is covered by the NPS's overall budget, not saddled entirely on an individual park), but so, too, are road repairs, maintaining front-country restrooms, handing out speeding tickets, and responding to vehicle accidents.

In fact, wipe out backcountry fees across the system and instead encourage The North Face, REI, or perhaps the entire Outdoor Industry Association to donate to cover whatever needs exist for backcountry fees across the entire park system. Or add $1 to entrance fees system-wide to fund a program for both backcountry search-and-rescue and front-country emergency response. 

Even entrance fees should be questioned by the Park Service. Rejuvenation, inspiration, and creativity spring from the mountains and forests and lakes and rivers and brooks and passes and meadows and valleys and hardwood hammocks. We can price these settings in terms of the economic draw that gateway communities realize from visitors drawn to these places, but we shouldn't tax visitors again and again and again to explore and enjoy these settings.

How might you replace lost entrance fee revenues, which generate somewhere north of $200 million a year for the Park Service? Better accounting and oversight of government is one place to start in light of recent news that the government somehow lost $8 billion to fraud, waste and abuse in trying to rebuild Iraq, that a contractor involved in building a nuclear waste processing plant billed the government $2 million for overtime it didn't perform, and that federal agencies have turned a blind eye to recommendations from their own Inspector generals that could save upwards of $67 billion.

In other words, the country can afford to do away park entrance fees if it was better at managing money.

Park Service officials have voiced concerns about connecting younger generations and more diverse demographic and racial groups with the parks, and yet in iconic places like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Shenandoah, Acadia, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, and 127 other parks those visitors are asked to dip into their pockets before entering and making that connection.

Some would have the Park Service sap park visitors even more for enjoying these landscapes, finding rejuvenation, and, hopefully, becoming advocates and even stewards for the national parks. The American Recreation Coalition would, among other things, have the Park Service increase park entrance fees and turn over campgrounds to concessionaires so they might "introduce dynamic pricing and start marketing these campgrounds." And ARC's revenue-generating ideas don't stop there.

The Park Service shouldn't go there. National parks are our national heritage and inheritance and held in trust for us by Congress. They are not the place to build a paywall, user-fee by user-fee.

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A lot said about Dale? Well I've got something to say about Dale. If backcountry camping has been on the decline in the Smokies for decades and the NPS provides NO amenities to backcountry campers and the public comments were 18-1 AGAINST the backcountry camping fee, then "Dale" doesn't care about facts or actual park users and you are woefully uniformed about the situation. I would suggest that you educate yourself on the lies driving the Smokies fees and try to understand the uproar. There is no confidence in "Dale", whether or not he was pressured into creating revenue or not. He didn't do his homework, ignored volunteer solutions and subverted the civic engagement process. If he is the superintendent of the "crown jewel" of the system, I would expect some better vetting of a situation and compromise. Integrity is what is lacking here and we all know Jarvis stands behind his big time supers to the death. This Smokies feeasco will be a lesson to all in the NPS. Dont pour water down our backs and tell us it is raining. It isn't raining anything down here but bureaucracy and deception and we are fighting mad and going to stop it. You can tell "Dale" that for all of us.

Moonpie and Parkie -- thank you for some refreshingly thoughtful comments. The mantra of "Cut Federal spending, but don't inconvenience or discombobulate ME" is already awfully old.

Good article Kurt...fees in national parks need some consideration...but so do our perspectives on them.

I agree, the fees in the smokies for backpacking are new and seem unreal....what happened to our National Parks? a place where everyone can go and enjoy peace and solitude....but let's do a reality check...

More and more people visit our parks every year, in some ways endangering them from their original purpose...a place to escape the madness of modern society...but, we still crave them. They are awesome and in Ken Burns words, America's Greatest idea. They are also a SUPER engine in the local let's see if there is some common ground that can be beneficial to both the parks, their visitors and the communities that rely on them.

So when I went to climb half dome a few years back and got to the bottom of the cables and found hundreds of people in line, waiting to scale the cables, I knew something was wrong. I for one applaud the Park Service for their efforts to regain the wilderness experience. I also don't mind paying a little for the the experience and if I don't get to go this year...I feel like I wll again sometime soon, and the experience will be sooooo much bette than last time (I turned around...)

I am a westerner and have not spent much time in the east but the beautiful photos I have seen for many years of the smoky mountains makes me want to go there and if I have to pay a few bucks to make sure I can have a trip that meets my needs and fulfills my's totally well worth it to me. I realize there is an argument that this should be free and that adding fees prices people out of the market - I can kind of agree but really, it would cost me more than that to go out for a few beers and a burger.

So my perspecitve, and it is only mine, is that we have gotten to a point in society where not everything can be free, even if it is purportedley paid for by our taxes.

There has been a lot said about Dale and how he doesn't care about what we say...I kind of doubt that....I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt here...faced with reduced budgets, higher demand , and in fact demand by people like me who would like to know I have trip and not have to wait until I get there, he made a good decision to offer a permit system on line that meets our expecations for a modern approach.

I wanted to go to the Everglades last year and meet some friends from Europe and do a back country boat trip - guess what - NO have to go there in person and hope you get a trip....they tell you tha you might get it but you might not. So we went somewhere else. I wouldn't go to Miami without a reservation and not knowing what the evrglades backcountry demand was going to be like, we decided not to risk it...seems kind of lame in this day and age. But I also understand that having something on-line is not going to be free, so I am willing to pay a little for that. A 4 day trip in Everglades would cost me less than a single day at Disneyworld...I just wish I could have planned it n advance. (mind you, we did not go to Disney! :-)

Parks just got a significant cut in let's make sure this argument is cogent and not just a backlash agains the Park Service. Dale and many others have spent lifetimes adhering to the principles of providing for recreation while also trying to keep these places "unimpaired for futre generations". Maybe it would better if we loosened up on the rhetoric and engaged these guys in some meaningful approaches to acheiving common goals. Fees aren't the enemy, lack of respectful discourse is and we need to get it together because we all want the same thing.

Even after considering regional variations in cost structure, varying operating costs and visitation levels, supply and demand for services, etc., I agree that many inequalities exist in the NPS fee structure that need to be addressed. However, I don't object to reasonable park entrance or user fees in general. Many U.S. citizens cannot, won't, or may not even have the desire to visit a national park, yet their federal taxes pay for the national park infrastructure (i.e. the capital investment) as equally as the federal taxes paid by frequent park visitors, even though they will not be driving down a park road, using a park restroom, throwing trash away inside a park, attending an interpretive program, needing to be rescued from a park, etc. Such operating expenses (i.e. overhead) and the accompanying services cost money to provide, and I think it is fair to expect those who use them to pay for them.

We also need to remember that although the America the Beautiful Senior Pass costs only $10, it is more like a "rest-of-your-life" pass than a "lifetime" pass, since you are not entitled to it at birth; instead, you have to wait till you're 62 to be able to purchase one. It may seem like a "lifetime" pass, however, since you have had to pay a lifetime's worth of federal taxes to make it to 62 and earn the opportunity to purchase one. And presumably, senior citizens touring the parks in $300,000 motorhomes have paid considerably more in taxes over their lifetimes than the majority of seniors who live on a fixed income and struggle to make ends meet -- and who truly need, and appreciate, the price break they receive on national park entrance and campground fees.

I can also understand the need to charge backcountry fees. As an example, although it may cost $10 for a car full of people to enter Everglades National Park, that pass is good at each of the various entrances to the park and it is valid for a whole week even if, like most people, they only spend a few hours in the park. But in addition to using the frontcountry, a person that spends 10 days or so in the backcountry canoeing the Wilderness Waterway will be using the backcountry campsites, chickees, and accompanying outhouses -- all of which need to be maintained and sometimes even rebuilt because of frequent storms, and the outhouses regularly emptied. These sites are remote, and they do cost money to keep operational, and even to keep in existence. From that perspective, it would not be equitable to expect frontcountry visitors who pay their own way to have to also pay for the impacts of backcountry users.

NPS entrance and user fees are more complicated than they appear to be at face value.

Alaskaflyer -- thanks for your comments above and also those in regards to the current flap at Fort Vancouver. It's apparent that you have some real knowledge behind you. Thanks for bringing some credible information into these discussions.

This article really educated me on many points. I think I will send this to congress and higher ups in the park service. You are correct figuring out what fee to pay where is worse than trying to decipher the US tax code. This is not the right structure to have in place for our parks or our country.

Thanks Kurt for this article!!

I am one of the MANY who are against the "backcountry fee" in the GSMNP! I don't want something for nothing but with this "fee" in the GSMNP I will be getting nothing for something! Don't get me wrong, I will be getting the ability to pack all my stuff on my back, hike up a mountain, sleep on the ground & dig a hole to go to the bathroom! But for my family of 4 it will be cheaper to camp in some of the frontcountry campgrounds with bathrooms, rangers close by, store and have my car next to my tent! Somehow that just doesn't make sense to me!!

Well-written editorial. I can't help but agree with much of what you say. In a perfect world we would choose as a nation to either fund parks as a collective, or not. Full appropriations say I, taking into account not only the role of national park units in protecting our resources and heritage but also providing recreational and educational activities for our people, and yes also being economic drivers for local economies.

I will say that many of the comments conflate different income sources (fees) which the NPS is authorized to collect, and your editorial doesn't help either, though I know you were going for the larger point. The FLREA authorizes fees for various reasons: Entrance fees, expanded amenities fees (usually used as campground fees), and the special recreation permit fee authority which seems to have everyone in GRSM in an uproar. Each category has its own policy for dollar analysis, justification, and expenditure. Then there are other fees such as cost recovery fees for special park uses, administrative fees, transportation fees, and commercial services fees. All these categories are authorized (sometimes demanded) by Congress.

I can't imagine a scenario where all fees would be eliminated. Whether you agree with the idea or not, fees are sometimes used as a method of "social engineering" to avoid having to institute user limits or quotas to reduce concerns about overcrowding or overuse. Is this "bad" or "good"?

Should we eliminate fees for the commercial use of our park units, particularly by those who have their business interests protected by contract with the government?

I would demand that every person standing in opposition to new fees or increases at GRSM, Everglades, wherever...instead of complaining to your representative about alleged and hyperbolic "abuses" by NPS officials you should rail against your Congress' failure to appropriate, appropriately.

My two cents.

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