Reader Participation Day: How Would You Structure User Fees For The National Parks?

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Should there be a fee to drive the 469-mile-long Blue Ridge Parkway?NPS

Imagine, for a moment, that you're in charge of setting fees for the National Park System. What would you charge for, and how much would you charge? Or would you charge anything at all?

Congress hasn't shown any great inclination to examine the fee system, other than to make some minor tweaks in a bid to generate more revenues for the parks. While debating the existing fees, and whether Congress is looking to fees to help fund the National Park Service could go on and on, for today's question let's avoid those debates and get creative in crafting a reasonable fee schedule for the parks. With that said, here are some things to consider in devising your fee schedule:

* Should there be entrance fees to national parks? If so, should each of the 401 units of the park system charge a fee?

* Is $80 a reasonable price for the annual America the Beautiful Pass that gets you into every park in the system that charges an entrance fee?

* Entrance fees vary quite a bit among the national parks. For example, Yellowstone National Park charges $25 for entrance for a seven-day period, Yosemite National Park charges $20 for seven days, Grand Canyon National Park charges $25 for seven days, Shenandoah National Park has a sliding scale depending on time of year that ranges from $10-$15, and Acadia National Park charges $20 for seven days. Should there be a consistent entrance fee charged across-the-board, and if so, how much should it be?

* Should the $10 Senior Pass, which you can purchase once you hit 62 and is good for the rest of your life, remain a flat $10? Should it be a one-time fee, or annual fee?

* Should there be a discounted annual pass for park travelers aged 18-24?

* Should there be an international pass for travelers coming from abroad to spend a few weeks exploring the National Park System?

* Since Great Smoky Mountains National Park can't charge an entrance fee for traffic on the Newfound Gap Road, should there be a fee to travel the 11-mile-loop road through Cades Cove? What about the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Natchez Trace Parkway, which also don't charge entrance fees to travel their bucolic landscapes.

* Should backcountry travelers have to pay a daily fee, or a permit fee, or both? If so, how much? Should the fees have a cap? Should those fees be uniform across the park system.

* Should horseback travelers pay the same amount as backpackers/hikers?

* Should off-road vehicles that head to places such as Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, and Padre Island national seashores have to charge fees above park entrance fees, and if so, should those fees be uniform across the system?

Those are just some of the issues that should be dissected; there no doubt are others you can think of. So have at it, travelers, how would you create a fee schedule for the parks?


Well this is a broad question. But I think all fees should be eliminated because we already pay taxes for the use of this public land. And the NPS has lost the credibilty with constant manipulation of their arbitrary fee systems and rampant abuse of FLREA interpretation. The budget of the NPS has increased while usership is decreasing. Does that justify fees or does it show the obvious. Fees decrease access to and public use of public lands. In the Smokies their backcountry fee decreased backcountry camping by 25 percent the first year. Entities that make a financial gain for use of public lands like photographers, guide services and concessionaires should pay and in some cases do. But take Mt. Leconte lodge in the Smokies, for instance. They charge an exhorbitant rate to stay in the only "in park" lodging/dining concession. In one year they pulled in 1.8 million dollars and paid a paltry $200,000 to the NPS. And they seem to get their concession contract renewed year after year. It highlights the cultural problem of the NPS. The organic act is a joke to them. It is the wallet act that they follow. Jarvis NPS serves the chambers of commerce and not the public. Public input is wholescale ignored with regard to all activites in the system. 350$ to climb Denali? Really? To climb a mountain we get double taxed again? Where and when does this insanity end? Probably never.

The NPS staff has the worst case of entitlement mentality I have ever seen. They expect us to pay them and then pay them some more then come on these forums and denigrate anyone who objects to paying them more, all while probably receiving a pension that most Americans will never see. Enough is enough with the nickle and dime fees. Manage your budgets or cut staff and reduce services. We can live without a visitor center, shooting range or new fleet of SUV's doing DUI patrol in the frontcountry.

I’ll start by saying I think the National Parks are one of the best values around. I actually feel good handing over my entrance fee when entering one of the parks. That is not to say I don’t think there is room for improvement (I will limit my comments to just the parks. Monuments, seashores etc. I would handle somewhat differently).

I think $25 for a seven day pass per vehicle is a bargain but should a single person wishing to enter the park pay the same as a car full of 6 adults or a family? I would charge a fee for each adult entering the park rather than a vehicle fee and perhaps a small fee for each child. A $10 lifetime senior pass is ridiculous to me. I would charge seniors the same as every other adult. I would not give special treatment to any group based on age (children being the exception). I would definitely charge an entrance fee to all of the parks and yes I would make them all the same (including the Smokies).

In general I am a fan of user fees over taxes where practical but I wouldn’t get too carried away. I think the current system has it about right. Added fees for horse use, backcountry camping, a boat ride, climbing etc. are fine and make sense to me. As best I could I would base the fees on actual costs so that those activities were self-supporting.

There are two areas I see room for improvement, concessions and lodging. In my experience both of these seem overpriced. I don’t think lodging or food inside a park should cost significantly more than outside the park and both should be kept affordable. At many parks it is now out of reach of many Americans. I don’t see a place for $400 per night accommodations or gourmet meals in our parks any more than I think everyone should be forced to camp or pack a lunch. The fact that they can charge this much does not in my opinion mean they should.

Face it the Feds are broke and that is only going to get worse. The National Parks are way to valuable to let go into decline and users fees are the only viable, reliable funding source available. Current fees are woefully inadequate and rediculously low. The Grand Canyon is looking at a $150 million replacement of the water line that supports the heavily visited South Rim. That exceeds the capital budget of the entire NPS.

Thoughts on specific fees:

Entrance fees - Six Flags tickets currently run about $60 PER DAY PER adult and $40 PER DAY PER child. The Grand Canyon is $25 per vehicle for up to seven days. A serious imbalance. Entry fees should be raised at least four fold and reduced to three days. Passes should be good within that time period at other Parks, i.e. your Grand Canyon Park will get you into Zion and/or Bryce. The argument against the entry fees is access, but when you look at the cost of taking a family of four from the midwest to the Grand Canyon the entry fee is a trivial part of the cost, even at the proposed levels. Gas, food and lodging costs for a family are several times what the entry fee amounts to. In general a reduction in attendance at most parks would be a good thing. Most are being degraded by over use.

Senior Pass - I have one, love it, but it is ridiculously cheap. Senior discounts are typically 10 - 20%. The Senior Pass should be in line with that. The pass can remain a forever pass, just reduce the benefit to a percentage discount..

Military Service - Every member of the armed services should receive a free pass into all parks good for life.

Special User Fees - Horses, pack animals, ATV's and other ORV's should pay an additional fee to cover the administrative, management, and other costs of their activities. Fee should be based on a fair share of these costs.

The America the Beautiful pass is great value, I would happily pay more - say 100 or 120 $ - for it. Coming from Europe I appreciate that non-US visitors can always purchase the pass as well.

What's the sense behind the senior pass reduction anyway? These folks are usually quite wealthy AND have a lot of time to spend in parks. They should pay the same price as others.

I also don't understand the free pass for Military personnel. They should pay, too.

Just a dream: a hefty extra charge for drivers of very loud, large and otherwise disturbing vehicles (motorbikes, massive RVs).

I think that someone asking for no fees to then call the NPS "the worst case of entitlement mentality I have ever seen" is someone living a life of irony.

I knew this fee talk would bring the NPS employees out of the woodwork and from under logs. . Cutting staff is what the NPS needs to be doing. When I hear that they hire a backcountry specialist and all these other needless positions within the agency who can do nothing better than come up with ideas to fund their positions and pay for their retirement then the time has come for this conversation.

Why is it that an agency that has had a steady increase in funds for years can poor mouth and denigrate any one who questions their all knowing fee authority? Some folks need to get off our government computers and get back to work serving the public instead of justifying their ballooning ranks.

Folks, as noted in the article above, " for today's question let's avoid those debates and get creative in crafting a reasonable fee schedule for the parks." Let's stay focused on the specific topic, please.

NPT Editors,

With all due respect, the slant of this article implies that there is a general consensus that people agree there needs to be additional fees within the NPS. I find it difficult to believe that is the case. By disallowing conversations that argue the opposite are you not, in essence, doing that of which the NPS itself stands accused ? Is there data to imply that the general public thinks fees are a favorable option? There are many organized groups that are on the other side of this thing.

No problem at all about disagreeing with fees, and that's been debated frequently on this site. For purposes of this one thread, let's focus on a more specific topic: IF fees are to be charged, how should they be structured? Plenty of room for good discussion there, with some starting points included in the story.

I agree we shouldn't be talking about how fees should be structured but how to get rid of all these random fees. I can't tell when I am in a park what requires a fee and what doesn't. Maybe an entrance fee but certainly not backcountry fees, paddling fees, etc. Surely the guy saying they should charge 4x the fee for entering a park must indeed work for the NPS they seem to have never met a fee or fee hike they didn't love.

I'll try to keep this in bullet points:

Entrance fees: Group the parks into tiers (I can think of perhaps 5). Entrance fees for all parks within a tier should be the same. Tiers could be based on attendance or on facilities provided (for instance, does the park offer a shuttle service). Then price accordingly. I can see the top parks charging $40-$50 for a 7 day pass, mid-tier $20, lower tier $10, etc. Keep the existing system of charging per car, not per person - the parks should do all they can to encourage families to come and charging per person will price many families out.

Campgrounds: Keep the fee structure as is.

Passes: Seniors should have to pay a per year fee for a deeply discounted pass ($20/year would be reasonable). Permanently disabled and military veterans should receive free lifetime passes. No discounts for 18-64. They should raise the regular America the Beautiful pass fee to $100/yr (that's still only 5 of the bigger parks to get your money's worth). Keep the system in place that allows international travelers to buy the standard AtB pass, there's no reason to have a special international pass. Allow each park the ability to have their own yearly park pass that is good only in that park.

Backcountry camping permits for established backcountry campsites should be $5/night across all parks.

High impact activities such as ATV, ORV or mountain biking (where allowed) should have special use fees to cover the maintenance those activities require.

"Drive through" parks such as Smoky Mountain are trickier but I do think that there should be an entrance fee to access places like Cades Cove and to park at trailheads for hiking.

Finally, your entrance fee should cover all activites not listed above, such as ranger-led programs, access to all public areas of a park, visitor's center activities, and park shuttles.

My rationale for this is simple - park systems that charge entrance and use fees, even nominal fees, are healthier park systems than those that do not. This is most evident on the state level, especially in the Midwest where the contrast between those states that charge an entrance fee (Michigan/Wisconsin/Indiana) and those that do not (Illinois/Iowa) is night and day.

Philosophically and practically I am basically opposed to fees to use facilities which are taxpayer funded. For example, researchers do not have to pay to use public archives and no one pays to use libraries which hold or are designated as depositories for public documents.

That being out of the way, and Kurt may reprimand me for what follows but I am genuinely trying to address the issue of fees, I do have three thoughts.

(1) IF (and I've already noted I'm opposed) fees are to be charged, I strongly believe all veterans should get free entrance. They have served us all, often done so at considerable sacrifice to family and their personal well-being, and at least in the lower ranks invariably done so at pay scales which don't exactly equate to a top-drawer lifestyle or financial well-being. They deserve some type of token thank you (sure aren't getting it through VA health care) and this would be one way to do that. Incidentally, if I may for a moment sermonize--take time whenever you can to thank those men and women who have served in our armed forces.

(2) The approach to concessionaires needs a thorough analysis and major reworking. Two posts above, one on the lodge on Mt. LeConte and the money-making machine it is for the operators and the other on the absolutely exorbitant costs for lodging and meals in some parks, highlight what is a general issue. I have no problem whatsoever with concessionaires making a reasonable living and return on their efforts. However, there is something fundamentally flawed when they are profiting in an incredible fashion. Also, in the situation I know best, there has long been a behind-the-scenes kind of favoritism with certain concessionaires.

(3) Take a long, objective look at the salaries paid Park employees, especially those at the higher pay grades and examine just how functional and effective the overall bureaucracy is. Again, in the system I know best, there is and long has been bureaucratic bloat.

Addressing points 2 and 3 admittedly won't resolve all Park-related monetary issues, but it would make a mighty fine start.

Jim Casada

If the federal government cannot manage it with the funds they have, let the states do it then. The mismanagement is ridiculous.

Agree tnbackpacker. Can tomorrow's question be "how can we get creative to ELIMINATE all fees for our parks"

I as "small government" as one can get and agree that better efficiencies can be obtained. That said, I see no problem with fees in some cases. I agree with the tiered fee system. Similar (in kind and public demand) parks would have the same fees with the top fee capped - I like the current $20.00. These fees would cover a set of basic services with "premium" services being paid ala-carte.

Backcountry fees of $5 bucks - no problem, if they are applied to backcountry services not to some unneeded reservation system.

American the Beautiful at $80. Its a deal if you use it a lot but you need to visit 5+ fee charging parks to make it pay. Most people don't do that and to encourage more frequent visits isn't a bad thing.

$10 seniors - a give away - but don't change it until next year ;)

International. If they are spending the bucks to get here, they can afford to pay the entrance fees.

A digression, but left Great Basin park today. No entrance fee. Great Basin is proof positive that putting NP on the name doesn't create a vibrant gateway city. Baker is a virtual ghost town. Its the land and location that creates the gateway cities not the NP label. Great Basin is no Yellowstone and Baker is no Cody.

Was that your first visit to Great Basin, ec?

By comparison to just a few years ago, Baker is booming today. As visitation to GRBA continues to grow, so will Baker.

As for park fees -- let's remember that when compared with other venues, our parks are bargains with a big capital B. One day at Disneyworld will cost $100 per adult and $80 per kid. And that's before spending anything for souvenirs and $12 hamburgers. A family can visit a whole lot of national parks for what they'd spend in one day there.

Great Basin is no Yellowstone, correct. And that's why we enjoyed grandiose solitude in this wonderful park last year. And Baker is to GRBA what Cooke City is to YELL. Better compare West Yellowstone with Ely.

First I would like to thank Kurt for publishing the articles he has on topics like this.

The more I read on this article and comments the more I keep coming back to this point:

What would the founders of our National Parks think of all this if they alive here today? I can't imagine that John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt and Horace Kephart (GSMNP) would have wanted a tier system of various fees to enjoy our National Treasures.

I agree with posts like SmokiesBackpacker, hikerBA & Jim Casada, no fees. We already pay for our National Parks through our taxes. The NPS and Federal Government should be able to manage on the budgets they have from our taxes. If not, replace them with others who can. However by saying nothing on this thread is like saying I agree with any tiered fee structure, which I cannot do.

How many of us like the various fees we now have to pay to fly on any airline today? Why would anyone endorse this same or similar structure on anyone whom wants to enjoy our National Treasures?

Some have stated that the fees now are a bargain. Really? My oldest daughter is 18 years old, an adult. She makes $8.25/hr. How could she afford to pay entrance fees + tiered fees for activities? Are the National Parks only for citizens and people whom can afford to get in?

Comparing our entrance fees to the National Parks to Disney and theme parks is ridiculous. Our National Parks should be for getting away from civilization and back to the basics. We do not need luxury in the woods. Have we forgotten where we came from in our Nation?

Our National Parks are ours to cherish and enjoy and to preserve for future generations.

Andrew Sisson

Thanks for your thoughtful post, Andrew!

I'm pretty much in the 'No Fee' camp also, for several reasons.

My understanding is that most of these fees can't be used for 'Operations', only "improvements" (actually development) that compound the maintenance backlog both by increasing inventory and by diverting staff from existing maintenance.

The vast majority of my NPS maintenance supervisers didn't really "manage". Most spent much of their time trying to fill the eye of the manager above them & lusting after more of everything, and typically left the actual managing to subordinates like myself.

It's also hard to support increasing NPS revenues when many park managers are extremely reluctant to share their fiscal details, even after formal FOIA requests.

Finally, there are many of us like your daughter, who can barely afford to drive to the nearest National Park, let alone be nickel & dimed endlessly by an out of touch, never satisfied, top-heavy bureaucracy.

It's true that our parks are supposedly supported by our taxes. But what portion of our taxes actually reach the parks?

Not much.

If Congress would spend the money needed to properly maintain and operate the parks, fees would be unnecessary. But Congress doesn't.

Just taking the dollars spent on one or two F-35s or a few cruise missiles would fund the parks very nicely.

Priorities . . . . .

Then there are those voters who cry loudly for gutting government spending who then turn around and scream if their own pets are left wanting.

Priorities . . . .

Any suggestions for solutions?

Since they "can't" [choke] charge at the Smokies, then they shouldn't be charging anywhere.

Since that's never going to happen, the fee schedule should be consistent over the entire park system, no exceptions (well, maybe, dubiously, the sites on the National Mall), and the rates should be based on annual visitation. Period.

I buy an annual parks pass every year the same way I buy AAA coverage [wry g].

Amen. The goal for food and lodging in the parks should be to make it as affordable for everyone as possible. Those who want luxury should be staying in gateway communities.

I would love to see a box to check on my tax form that says " I would like to contribute a dollar to help the maintainance backlog of the NPS" right next to the one for helping pay for "Presidential elections" Aside from that I do not mind the fees because it seems small to me. In my view parks maintainance should be paid by taxes because we all own the parks and it is everyones responsibillity to take care of them. I guess use fees could cover park personel and things I impact while I am there.

I like that suggestion on the tax form, David.


I absolutely agree with you on one thing. The wasteful military spending and endless foreign wars are a drain and we will today, in Tennessee anyway, re elect the same congressman and senators that voted to keep us there and complain about how everyone else's congressman and senator are the problem. Yes, I would much rather see money go to the NPS than a pet fighter jet project in Alabama that the military doesn't want in the first place or continual funding of the NSA so they can spy on American citizens and store their phone records in perpetuity.

But I don't get directly billed every time they bomb a village in Afghanistan or a policeman throttles someone and I don't intend to accept it from the NPS.

Smoky, you may not be billed directly for the bombs, but you are still being billed. You are being billed when you must pay for other things that lack money to keep them going.

Like parks.

And just a word of advice -- be very careful what you say about NSA. They're listening . . .

Keep smiling.

Let me clarify why I don't mind limited fees as opposed to taxes. In my perfect world there would be no taxes, only fees, so that I (and everyone else) directed their money to only the services we want. I think we would all agree that because there will always be freeloaders who will expect others to pay for things they actually will benefit from that kind of system is not practical. Hence I see a combination of fees and taxes as the next best thing. Fees better show what people value and the value they place on them than a universal tax where that value is hidden. We all seem to love our parks here yet know there are many people that pay taxes and have no desire to ever visit.

As far as my comment on the park entrance fee being a bargain it is because I feel I am getting a great deal for my money. Far more than if I paid $100 to get into Disney (which I have no desire to do). That said, I also realize a portion of my tax dollars are also going to the parks but at last check it wasn't enough to make me feel like I wasn't getting my dollars worth. I have no doubt that there is tremendous waste in the NPS and yes I see them spending dollars on things I think are uncalled for. Unfortunately it is almost inevitable with a bureaucracy this large. This does not mean I accept it or propose there is nothing that can be done. I think forums like this can help inform the general public of waste and corruption and hopefuly they speak to their representatives and vote accordingly. .

Wild Places, you just said almost exactly what I think. You've stated it very well. Thank you.


Cooke City is a dump and it is 100 times the economics of Baker. And Baker is the only gateway to GB.

But Cooke City is also the entrance (or exit, depending on which way you are traveling) to Beartooth Highway. That alone accounts for probably a majority of its summer traffic. It also is a good part of the town's winter traffic, because there is a lot of snowmobile use of the Beartooth.

Some have stated that the fees now are a bargain. Really? My oldest daughter is 18 years old, an adult. She makes $8.25/hr. How could she afford to pay entrance fees + tiered fees for activities? Are the National Parks only for citizens and people whom can afford to get in?

How affordable should we expect the parks to be? I am not sure what your situation was when you were 18 but I remember mine and that of my friends. We couldn’t afford the gas or a car reliable enough to take a trip to visit the parks much less the lodging or camping gear needed to stay. We felt lucky if we could pay for food clothes and shelter at that age. I don’t have the latest figures but am guessing the portion of your daughter’s taxes that go to the parks is pretty miniscule.

I do agree we don’t need luxury in the woods (although that was an early part of our parks if I recall correctly) and that we should work to keep them as affordable as possible but what is affordable would be a whole other topic (and a very spirited debate I am sure).