Pricing Entrance Fees for National Parks

Happy New Year! I hope you all get to visit a lot of parks in 2007. If your travels take you through Texas, know that you'll have to pay more to enter Big Bend National Park. The fee has jumped this year from $15 a week to $20 a week per car. You can read a quick news article about the price increase in the Odessa American newspaper, "Big Bend parks hike entry fees".

What struck me about that particular article is a comment made by Big Bend Public Information Officer, David Elkowitz. In the article he says that the fee increase is being made to standardize fees across the NPS. "It's based on park size and visitors", he says.

I may be among a minority of people who don't like that statement. It says to me that entrance fees are priced the same as any other commodity. It says your experience in Big Bend is worth twice as much as your experience in a smaller park like Devils Tower. With entrance fees as commodities, prices are determined by the market. Sounds crazy, right? Well, the Department of the Interior teamed up with the University of Wyoming to determine what the market would bear when pricing the new America The Beautiful pass. They found that we wouldn't like anything more than $70. So, they set the price at $80.

I love the parks, it's why I write this blog. I don't want to see these places suffer under shrinking budgets. I don't want to see interpretive programs cut, or wayside exhibits rot, or roads closed because there isn't enough money. I do not believe increasing entrance fees are the answer to save the parks, but I don't believe parks should be free either. I've said it before, why not let our federal taxes take care of our national assets? I'm willing to accept that this request may mean an increase to my tax burden. That option may not be very popular, but it may be catching on.

In response to the America The Beautiful pass price, Senator Craig Thomas, the outgoing chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Parks told a Wyoming newspaper, "an $80 fee is certainly higher than what folks should have to pay to recreate on federal lands. If there's a budget problem in our land management agencies, let's get to the root of it, address it head-on, and not put budget shortfalls on the back of recreational visitors."

And, just today, Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon has announced that he has contacted the Department of Interior to oppose the upcoming entrance fee hikes for both Crater Lake National Park and Lava Beds National Monument. The proposed price jump has been denounced in the press. DeFazio thinks the Interior is barking up the wrong tree for money. He writes in his letter to Kempthorne
I am addressing my concerns to you because I believe the proposed fee increase represents the larger issue of misplaced priorities within your Department. For the past several years, Congress has provided funding above and beyond the President's request to address the maintenance backlog throughout our national park system. I appreciate that your budget is subject to review and amendment by the Office of Management and Budget, however, I would hope that the FY08 budget realistically reflects the unmet needs of the national park system and requests additional general funds from the Congress. I am sure we agree that our national park system is in great need of additional funding but I believe these fee increases will be counter-productive.

Beyond my concerns regarding park funding, there is an issue of social equity at play. On the one hand the Park Service is proposing to double fees paid by hard-working taxpayers to use their public lands. Meanwhile, your Department is abandoning efforts to collect royalties from oil companies who are flush in profits. If the same vigor used to justify fee increases was put towards collecting the appropriate royalties from oil companies the Department and taxpayer might be better off.

It may be a small step, but it makes me hopeful that in this new year, our representatives in Washington, D.C. are recognizing that the cost to visit our public lands may be getting out of control.