It's 1911 and your grandparents are braving mountain roads to visit the year-old Glacier National Park.
The charge: $4 to cover everyone in their
black Model T.
Now jump ahead to 1996. You're
braving the roads to Glacier as your grandparents did before you.
But though your burgundy Volvo station wagon is new, the fee you
pay is old: $5 to cover everyone in the car. It's an attractive if
archaic price for park visitors to pay.
wouldn't even let you park your car for $5," says Jerry Nelson,
Glacier's fee coordinator.
Park entrance fee
legislation is a Capitol Hill perennial; it keeps coming up and it
keeps getting mowed down. The Reagan administration repeatedly
sought higher park entrance fees, with minimal success. Congress
last approved a park entrance fee increase in 1987, but even then
retained the power to specify which parks can charge fees: Only 133
out of 367 national park units currently charge
But the 104th Congress, though ultimately
unproductive in many other public-lands issues, may be the golden
one for park fees. Not only could fees rise nationwide, they would
be collected in a whole new way and the parks themselves would
benefit instead of the general U.S. Treasury.
House Resources Committee has approved legislation lifting the
long-standing entrance fee caps that Congress imposed on national
parks, monuments and historic sites. Equally important, the bill
takes Congress out of the business of setting park entrance fees.
The Interior Department would gain the discretion to ratchet up
what visitors pay.
And, instead of visitors
paying a per-car fee, the Park Service could charge per-person
fees. Get enough family members stuffed into that Volvo, and that
could add up, especially as children under 16 could also be
charged. The legislation approved by committee on a 26-12 vote
would also distribute back to individual parks some of the money
Still, Park Service officials
caution they don't want future Congresses to exploit higher
entrance fees as justification for reduced park funding. The
legislation addresses this, with language citing a minimum
appropriation for parks based on fiscal 1995 funding
What that legislation will look like in
its final form remains unclear. The Senate Energy and Natural
Resources Committee has yet to act on its own version of park fee
legislation. When the House bill authored by Utah Republican James
Hansen hits the floor later this spring, it will likely hit some
Democratic road bumps. During House committee consideration,
Democrats like Rep. Bill Richardson of New Mexico complained about
the proposed end to $10 Golden Age Passports for those aged 62 and
older. Current passes would be honored, but new ones would no
longer be issued.
"The Park Service recognizes
the reality of life that fees are going to go up," National Park
Service spokesman David Barna said. "It's a (question) of how much
they're going to go up."
The sentiment is
acutely felt out in the field. Park veterans like Doug Caldwell,
public information officer for Rocky Mountain National Park, note
that entrance fees have stayed low for so long that officials don't
really know how much more the public might willingly pay. Charge
even a tad too much, officials fear, and the park gates could slam
shut for some visitors.
Last year, the Park
Service collected about $80 million in entrance fees. Agency
officials hope that by collecting more and distributing it back to
parks they can help alleviate a maintenance backlog now estimated
at several billion dollars worth of repairs to cracked roads,
run-down electrical systems, destroyed trails and employee
"It would be very positive," Nelson
The House legislation, amended since it was
first introduced, sets the $80 million as a base. Any amount
collected above that in future years would be considered new
revenue. The parks would share 75 percent of that new revenue based
on the amount of their own entrance fees.
formula, of course, would most help popular destinations like
Yosemite, which collected $2.8 million last year. Glacier took in a
relatively modest $975,613, and so would get less back. Parks might
also see fewer visitors because of higher fees, though the fall-off
may not last long or be very widespread.
don't mind paying more for government services if they can see what
it's going for," said Judy Kunofsky, executive director of the
private Yosemite Restoration Trust. "We've always supported the
idea that entrance fees should be based on the number of persons
rather than by car."
The legislation exempts
some parks in Alaska. The chairman of the House Resources Committee
is Republican Don Young of Alaska. Coincidence? Of course not. But
then, as with park fees, some things in politics are the same as in
the days of your grandparents' Model T.
Michael Doyle is
a reporter in the Washington bureau of McClatchy