National parks ponder fee increases

Entrance fees haven't gone up since 2008.

 

 Our national parks and monuments are a great bargain — between $10 and $25 gets a whole carful of visitors into the park for 7 days.  Compare that to the cost of a movie ticket or museum admission — about $10 per person for just one day. 

Now the National Park Service is proposing to hike entrance fees, which are charged at about one-quarter of the 401 sites it manages. The agency hasn’t increased fees since 2008, but even with potential jumps of 50 to 150 percent, parks are still one of the best deals going.

The fee increases would help chip away at the $12 billion maintenance backlog that plagues the national park system. In an August memo to regional NPS directors, the agency’s head, Jon Jarvis, notes that “additional funds will enable us to enhance visitor facilities and service as we approach our centennial anniversary in 2016.” The memo also says that if there’s not general public support for fee hikes at a park, superintendents can choose not to raise fees, or to delay any increase for a few years, or phase in an increase gradually over the next three years. The price of camping, cabins and tours is likely to go up as well.

Yosemite National Park
Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite National Park. Courtesy Flickr user daveynin

The National Parks Traveler explains the fee hikes in more detail:

Accompanying (Jarvis’s) notification, which was not announced publicly, was an entrance fee schedule that placed the 131 units that now charge entrance fees into four groups. …

The four groupings are intended to reflect the size and expense of running a park. So parks such as Yellowstone in Wyoming, Grand Canyon in Arizona, Glacier in Montana, and Yosemite in California would be in Group 4, while parks such as Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area in Wyoming … and Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in Idaho would be in Group 1.

Under Director Jarvis' schedule, "if supported by civic engagement," by 2017 all parks in the four groups would charge $30 per week for vehicle entry, $15 for someone on foot, and $25 for a motorcycle; all Group 3 parks would set their entrance fees at $25, $12 and $20; all Group 2 parks would move to $20, $10, and $15, and; all Group 1 parks would move to $15, $7 and $10.”

The fee increase is allowed by the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which lets public land managers collect visitor fees to improve trails, bathrooms, and so on. Anti-fee activists fear that fee hikes will make parks less accessible. The Denver Post reports:

“Increases that big should not be rushed, said Kitty Benzar, a Durango public lands advocate whose Western Slope No-Fee Coalition lobbies for unfettered access to undeveloped public land.

Benzar and her group are not opposed to fees at national parks. But they did oppose the last round of fee increases in 2007, arguing that increasing the cost of access returns the parks to its century-old roots, when only the wealthy and elite could afford visiting the country's natural treasures.”

Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park, courtesy of Flickr user m01229

In 1915, a weeklong pass to Yellowstone cost $10 — equivalent to about $320 today, according to the Idaho Statesman. The actual cost of a weekly auto pass at Yellowstone today is $25, but it takes $100 million annually to operate the park. Now, park superintendent Dan Wenk is talking about ways to make it more self-sufficient. He’ll consider implementing those increased entrance fees, writes reporter Rocky Barker, but would hold public meetings to discuss it first.

“Wenk spoke last week with a group of free-market environmental economists, historians and other academics examining national park policies at a workshop sponsored by the Bozeman, Mont-based Property and Environment Research Center. He said Yellowstone already raises two-thirds of its expenses through concessionaire fees and private donations through the Yellowstone Park Foundation. …

Among Wenk's ideas for entrance fees are including options such as two-day or three-day passes along with the current seven-day pass. He wants to continue to offer a two-park pass, but he'd like to "divorce" Yellowstone from Grand Teton so each offers its own entry fee.

Several economists suggested Wenk charge extra to foreign visitors, who make up a large part of the 3.5 million annual visits to Yellowstone. The entry cost is a tiny percentage of the total cost of an international trip, and far lower than African national parks charge, for instance.”

A recently introduced bill by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, took the “stick it to foreigners” idea even farther. House Resolution 5204, an outgrowth of the afore-mentioned Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, would have restricted sales of annual passes only to U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

"Besides being unfriendly to foreign visitors, it opens the door to all kinds of racial and ethnic profiling abuse," said Benzar Wednesday in an email to the National Parks Traveler. "Would the groups that are opposing ID requirements to vote be OK with having to show ID to purchase an ATB pass? I don't think so. Would entrance station staff have to see proof of citizenship/residency along with each pass presented?”

The Bishop bill also would have allowed the BLM, Forest Service and NPS to charge fees for most uses of public land, whether in developed or undeveloped areas, and to increase their overhead costs substantially, from 15 to 25 percent. The bill has died in the House, though.

So, at least for now, we won’t be seeing fees for, say, backpacking in wilderness or hiking on BLM land. But a fee hike for those 131 national park units is overdue. There isn’t much that hasn’t gone up in price over the past 8 years, and Congress is unlikely to hand the NPS any sort of significant budget increase.

Jodi Peterson is the managing editor of High Country News. She tweets @Peterson_Jodi.