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.

Comments

A great--and timely--piece. Just forwarded it.

In line with your hike/tent v. RV comparison, my biggest simple change would be the fee structure per motor vehicle v. per bicycle. To take CABR as an example, the fees are $5 per private motor vehicle no matter how many people, but $3 per bicycle, so 2 people riding bikes to the park pay more at the entrance station than if they drove, even though they don't require parking spaces and have less impact on air quality. Fees can (and I think, should) encourage cycling to (and in) many urban parks, but also those with gateway communities & congested areas.

My sentiments exactly Kurt. It is outrageous to me that backcountry users are charged exhorbitant fees while those entering through the gate in a car are charged, by comparison, virtually nothing. At Grand Canyon, 10 people doing a 15 day river trip would cost $1000 in NPS permit fees (more still for the Hualapai take out and the entry into Glen Canyon at Lees Ferry) while the same group in two cars could stay on the south or north rims for two weeks for $100 (free if you have a couple of America the Beutiful passes) taking advantage of all the ranger talks, movies, restrooms, paved trails etc. According to FLREA fees levied are supposed to be commensurate with the services/facilites/equipment used but at Grand Canyon, anyway, this concept is reversed.

A-men. In spades. I do not have words strong enough to state my agreement with this entire post.

I don't really have anything to add to it, but this article says exactly how I've felt about the inequity of fees in the national parks ever since the first time I visited the Great Smokies (which were a vast disappointment to me, anyway, but that's another story).

Yes, indeed.

Outstanding column, Kurt. I hope many eyes see this and realize how derelict our federal government has become in direct proportion to the preponderance of fees (truly double and triple taxes). The Administrators in our federal agencies seem to often think of the lands they oversee not as ours, but as theirs which they then "sell" to us.

The following sums up the direction we've been heading for some time now. They are the words of the US Forest Service's first ever Chief Operating Officer, Francis Pandolfi, in 1999 after coming to the Forest Service in 1997 directly from the American Recreation Coalition where he had served as Chairman of their Recreation Roundtable:

"Have we fully explored our gold mine of recreational opportunities in this country and managed it as if it were consumer product brands? How could it be done? As federal agencies and others transition from providing outdoor recreation at no cost to the consumer to charging for access and services, we can expect to see many changes in the way we operate. Selling a product, even to an eager customer, is very different from giving it away."

Such is frequently the mindset when it comes to "our public lands." In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Superintendent Dale Ditmanson, when discussing his initial desire to outsource his new unneeded and overwhelmingly unpopular backcountry reservation system to Recreation.gov, espoused the "one-stop-shopping" benefit. And throughout his sales pitch over the last 18 months those who live around the Park – where families were forced to surrender their homes and the only life they had ever known – have been repeatedly referred to not as descendents, not as tax-paying owners, not even as visitors, but as “customers.” Of course, he lumped all other Americans in that category as well.

Thanks again for a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. 

 

Regarding Everglades NP and its outrageous 10 day period for accepting public comments: for at least 4 days, beginning no later than last Friday and lasting through today (Monday) the primary email link ( EVER_Ranger_Activites@nps.gov ) resulted in returned “undeliverable” submissions. They were notified of this on Friday (and most likely it has been the case since the public comment period opened on Tuesday 3/5) yet as of 2 minutes ago comments were still being rejected (about a 27 minute wait for it to kick back). How’s that for being in tune with the American public? It’s all a sham anyway, but now they’re so arrogant they flaunt it, providing no details on why the increase is necessary or what it will supposedly fund. They’re above answering to the public or even caring enough to allow dissatisfied owners the outlet to voice their disapproval before the foregone dismissal or deletion of those comments.

Kurt,

This is the best article I have read regarding the feeascos created by the NPS. You and this magazine are to be commended for holding the NPS to task and demanding equity from the NPS. The Smokies debacle has been and continues to degenerate at every foul smelling turn with every layer of the onion exposing some other justification for the sole purpose of getting their foot in the door with a backcountry fee. Of course the NPS and their leadership are above "responding" to the needs of ordinary citizens. It is only legal and political pressure that causes them to do anything.

I hope that the incoming DOI Secretary sees this and responds to the citizens instead of the "good ole boys" that will try to bend her hear in the direction of continuing fees. Thank you for doing a service for the American public. A service that the "Service" does not.

Right on, right on.

I can only speak about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but another problem is the NPS' use of deceit and outright dishonesty in public pronouncements trying to drum up support for this backpacker tax.

We feel like we've been robbed.

Great article Kurt. I have always thought that its a shame that the fees charged at other parks, has to fund Great Smoky because they do not charge an entrance fee. But trying to charge back country campers seems to be the dumbest idea yet. I also like Tomp2 notion that two bikes cost more than a car load...great point.

This is a meticulously researched, cogently presented, and highly important piece. It represents a scating indictment on the NPS. My person knowledge of the situation in the Smokies has convinced me, in an ever more compelling fashion, that the NPS is a bureaucracy teetering on the verge of being out of control. The examples in this piece certainly suggest as much.

Inconsistencies, misrepresentations, obfuscation deceit, obtuse refusal to heed the voice of the public, and sheer arrogance plague the NPS's upper echelons. There are plenty of dedicated, high competent in the NPS ranks, but it seems the supposed cream of the bureaucrats who have risen to the top have turned decidedly sour. That is definitely the case in the Smokies, where the whole backcountry fee matter has been a prime example of what is wrong with the NPS.

Fortunately, local folks who are passionate about the Park, joined by others at a greater geographical remove, have refused to take the matter in quiescent fashion. The superintendent, Dale Ditmanson, has stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy, and the more that is discovered the worse matters look.

Strangely, with only one or two exceptions, the local press, which seems to a considerable degree in the superintendent's pocket, has pretty much glossed over or ignored the situation. This piece is unquestionably the best piece of solid journalism yet focused on the issue. Kudos.

Jim Casada

Kurt,

Many thanks for such a fine article. I am very interested to see that this "feeasco" seems to be countrywide and not just limited to GSMNP. In my humble opinion the very last resort for solving a "problem" in the park should be a fee or fee increase. Volunteer groups raise huge sums for the park every year and countless volunteer hours go into backcountry maintenence. I think the people could solve most problems in the "people' park" without paying more for it. I would like to include a part of FDR's speech dedicating the park that speaks to keeping the park free for our enjoyment.

It is good and right that we should conserve these mountain heights of the old frontier for the benefit of the American people. But in this hour we have to safeguard a greater thing: the right of the people of this country to live as free men. Our vital task of conservation is to preserve the freedom that our forefathers won in this land, and the liberties that were proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence and embodied in our Constitution.

In these centuries of American civilization, greatly blessed by the bounties of nature, we succeeded in attaining liberty in Government and liberty of the person. In the process, in the light of past history, we realize now that we committed excesses which we are today seeking to atone for.

We used up or destroyed much of our natural heritage just because that heritage was so bountiful. We slashed our forests, we used our soils, we encouraged floods, we overconcentrated our wealth, we disregarded our unemployed—all of this so greatly that we were brought rather suddenly to face the fact that unless we gave thought to the lives of our children and grandchildren, they would no longer be able to live and to improve upon our American way of life.

In these later years we have tried sincerely and honestly to look ahead to the future years. We are at last definitely engaged in the task of conserving the bounties of nature, thinking in the terms of the whole of nature. We are trying at least to attain employment for all who would work and can work, and to provide a greater assurance of security throughout the life of the family.

From hard experience we know that the process is a long one, but most of us realize that if we can continue our effort without serious setbacks, the ideals of the American way of life can and will be attained by working everlastingly for the good of the whole and not for the good of any one privileged group.

So, from within our own borders, liberty through democracy can, I believe, be preserved in future years if we want to preserve it.

But there is a second danger—a danger from without. I hope, for example, that one hundred years from now the Great Smoky National Park will still belong in practice, as well as in theory, to the people of a free nation. I hope it will not belong to them in theory alone and that in practice the ownership of this Park will not be in the hands of some strange kind of Government puppet subject to some strange kind of an overseas overlord. I hope the use of it will not be confined to people who come hither on Government specified days and on Government directed tours. I hope the trees will not be slaughtered by the axe in order that a Government may conduct wars of aggression against other nations. I hope that roads and paths and trails will still be built in the cause of the liberty of recreation, and not confined to the ulterior purposes of a war machine controlled by an individual or by an oligarchy.

I have a strong suspicion that most park employees, including superintendents, would much prefer to have Congress appropriate adequate funds to run their parks without having to collect any fees at all.

Unfortunately, during the past 40 years or so there has been a trend toward replacing appropriated funds with fee income, and asking parks to become more and more "self-supporting." I think it's safe to say that idea has come primarily from politicians, not park employees.

No doubt there's room for discussion and even criticism about some decisions that have been made involving fees, but in fairness to the NPS, consider the source of the pressure to rely on fees to keep the park's running.

Jim - perhaps I am reading this wrong:

http://home.nps.gov/applications/budget2/documents/NPS_10-YearBudgetHistory.pdf

but it looks to me like appropriations have been going up steadily. In fact, the total is up 30% in the last 9 years.

(edit) And if I understand correctly, fees weren't allowed until 1997 and still make up less than 10% of total park expenditires. So it hasnt been a 40 year trend and isn't a majority of the finding.

( edit of edit). To clarify, fees were collected prior to 1997 but were sent to the govt and reallocated as part of the appropriations. After 1997 parks were able to keep 80% of the fees which did not count as part of the appropriations.

Jim

Respectfully, criticism of the NPS, at least in Tennessee and North Carolina, includes our government lying to us.

If you look at the total base operating budget of the individual parks, it went down by $23.677 million between FY 2011 and FY 2012. (NPS 2013 Greenbook page ONPS-121) http://www.nps.gov/aboutus/upload/FY13_NPS_Greenbook.pdf Also, all the new historic parks that congress and the president throw at NPS without increasing the budget also eat into the invidual parks' operating budgets. For example in FY 2012, the new baby park Fort Monroe took $350,000 away from the rest of the parks.

Great article Kurt, I am one of the many in TN that are opposed to the backcountry fee in the Smokies.

Outstanding article and thank you Kurt for bringing more light to this situation, especially in the GSMNP. I live in GA and frequent the GSMNP about twelve times a year. In my first couple of years visiting the park, I was one of the Cades Cove loop drivers. I have since begun hiking, backpacking and now off trail hike in GSMNP. I love this park and the history behind it. This park is our land. I do not agree with the backpacking fee and the way the NPS has implemented and attempted to justify it.
I would urge anyone whom loves this park and the backcountry seriously learn more about how this fee was implemented and the injustice on how it was put in place. It is never too late to take a stand. The Everglades increase is a prime example of more of what we can expect going forward. Stand up like Kurt has and others on this site on this issue!

(I've edited the following comment for clarity after I posted it last night)

EC - You're correct about the timing of fee revenue - the NPS wasn't allowed to retain and use that money until the 1990s.

And, you're also correct about increases to the overall NPS budget in the past nine years, although it's worth noting the amounts appropriated for park operations in FY10 and FY11 represent small decreases from the previous year.

So what's the problem for the parks?

If you take the money Congress has made available for park operations (the "ONPS" category on the chart you cite), there has been little if any net gain for most parks for basic operations.

Just a few examples:

1. During the past decade Congress had added about a dozen new areas to the NPS; operating costs for those additions have to be funded out of the increases you cite, thereby reducing any potential gains to be allotted among existing parks.

2. Beginning with FY 2008, operating costs for the U. S. Park Police are charged against the ONPS budget category. In prior years, those costs were paid from a separate appropriation. In FY 2012, those costs were about $102.6 million, so a rough estimate shows those costs in FY 08-11 eat up almost two-thirds of the apparent increase since 2003 for NPS operations.

3. The cost for everyone to do business has increased during the past nine years, including fuel, costs to replace worn out vehicles and equipment, and yes, modest increases in salaries for employees during some of those years. Even though some may begrudge those increases, Congress awards them and they have to be paid out of the amount allocated for park operations.

I haven't dealt with park budgets in a number of years now, so I can only say that based on my last few years on the job, factors such as those listed above more than offset the modest "increases" in our park budget. The result: we lost rather than gained any ground in our ability to perform day to day park operations, and that meant reductions in the number of permanent and seasonal employees. I'd be surprised if that has changed very much in the past decade.

Park management has no control over the factors I mentioned above, so that brings us back to the subject at hand, which is fees.

I said in an earlier comment I believed most NPS employees would much prefer to have Congress appropriate adequate funds to run their parks without having to collect any fees at all. However, given the above factors, both the NPS and Congress are turning increasingly to user fees as a way to keep the ship afloat.

All of the above is just one Illustration of why it's so hard to figure out how to cut the cost of government.

Excellent commentary. I hated paying $20 to drive through Zion a few years ago on my way to somewhere much quieter and calmer. I was staying in the park only as long as it took me to drive through. Never again will I do that.

Despite that $20 fee, however, traffic was bumper-to-bumper from Zion's west entrance to the east. For about 30-50 miles it looked and felt like New York City's Lincoln Tunnel at rush hour. I suppose if there were no fee, it would be worse yet.

There's something amiss with the national parks' mass-tourism model, and I suppose the entrance charge is one way to try to constrain the demand to drive in and look around. It may be imperfect, but I haven't the faintest idea how to solve the larger problem. Just to refer to mass tourism, as I did, smacks of distasteful elitism. But what are people in the hundreds of RVs per day getting out of driving through Zion?

My personal solution is to avoid all popular national parks in the same way I avoid Disney World and the Las Vegas Strip.

Maybe our country is just too heavily populated now for the popular parks to be anything but overrun. And yet forcing the front country park acreage into the formally designated Wilderness model of authorized travel only by 19th century modes—canoe, foot, horse, and packstock—would probably be a sure route to alienating the public and killing the NPS's budget. The U.S. national park model has won global popularity; the Wilderness model has no precise equivalent that I know of in any other country.

So I'm out of ideas.

imtnbke, coupla thoughts on your Zion experience. One, traffic might have been bumper to bumper because of road work on the Mt. Carmel tunnel. Or, folks didn't want to take the rather longish other route outside the park from the west side of the park around to U.S. 89 on the east side. That west-to-east drive through the park is the quickest, easiest, and shortest.

Also, there is mass transit in Zion Canyon itself. You can only drive your rig into the canyon during the high season if you have a room at the lodge; otherwise you have to board the shuttle, which actually is a great service.

imtnbke, you just outlined only one of the kinds of dilemmas that confront many park managers nationwide. Want to volunteer to become a park superintendent? If you do, you'll need to accept the fact that nothing you do will make anybody happy, so be prepared for gray hair and instant ulcers.

Great article, thanks so much for "getting it" and for writing this article to explain the issues so well and so thoroughly!

Mike

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.

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!!

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.

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.

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.

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 economies...so 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 desires...it'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 GO...you 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 funds...so 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.

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.

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.