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Should Park Entrance Fees be Eliminated?


    Here's a novel concept: Eliminate the fees to get into the national parks. Yep, you read that right. Get rid of the fees. Just open the gates to all who want to come in and visit the most incredible national park system on the face of the earth.
    Don't worry. The parks won't go broke. In fact, there's a chance they'll thrive.

    Scott Silver is executive director of Wild Wilderness, a non-profit that advocates on behalf of our wild lands. And he's a big proponent of getting rid of national park entrance fees. But he knows it's not likely to happen in our lifetimes.
    "The National Park Service would NEVER contemplate eliminating entrance fees. The free-market ideologues who run the Department of Interior would NEVER stand for such a thing. The concept of allowing free public entry goes against their belief system," says Scott. "And yet, those fees have become a problem for the parks. Park visitation has been in decline for about a decade and, partly in response to this decline, anti-park forces are now trying to rewrite the NPS mission in order to make the parks attractive to a different crowd of fun-seeking, recreation-oriented, fee-paying customers."
    As Scott sees it, "...the ownership-society ideologues who have hijacked America WANT to serve only a sliver of the population. Denying middle and lower income citizens pleasures affordable to the wealthy is part of their ideology. Creating ever-bigger tax-breaks for the few and passing the costs of such things as park maintenance onto visitors in the form of ever-higher user-fees, is their ideology. These people are destroying America's parks and gutting America's democracy because their ideology is fundamentally flawed and innately undemocratic."
    To buttress his argument that entrance-fee-free parks would thrive, Scott points us to  a thoughtful article written by the executive director of the U.S.S. Constitution Museum. From Burt Logan's viewpoint, the elimination of entrance fees to the museum actually enabled it to thrive. You can read his piece here.
    After you finish reading the article, let me know what you think of getting rid of entrance fees. I think it's an important proposition to consider. After all, there are no admission fees for the clutch of museums overseen by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the Smithsonian certainly is not lacking for revenues. Sure, it could use more money. We all could use more money. But it's not bankrupt and about to shut its doors.
    Remove the entrance fees to national parks and there's a likelihood that visitation will rocket and, along with that increase, money spent in the parks will go up and the numbers of folks concerned about how our national parks are managed and run will increase. In the end we'd have a better product.
    But Scott's likely right. Those in Washington currently running the show probably wouldn't see the logic in eliminating entrance fees. But it's a concept worth exploring. Definitely more worthy than considering a steady increase in entrance fees that will slowly lock Americans out of our parks.


Eliminating park entrance fees, while an attractive concept, isn't as simple, nor likely to be as successful, as Scott Silver and others suggest. Why? 1. The authority to impose and collect fees is established by Congress, not the NPS. Congress clearly intends fee revenue to supplement their own less-than-adequate appropriations for the national parks. 2. Unlike the Constitution Museum in Boston,few sales outlets in park visitor centers can generate the kind of revenue that would offest the revenue from fees. Revenue from cooperating associations (the organizations that sell the books in the visitor centers) is even more restrticted in how it can be spent in the parks than fee revenue is. I am a national park superintendent and am reluctantly but vigorously pursuing reasonable entrance and user fees for my park. Flat budgets and increasing fixed costs over the last several years have resulted in a 16% reduction in the number of staff hours, a reduction in visitor center hours and interpretive programs in the field, a reduction in maintenance of facilities, a reduction in monitoring and management and restoration of natural and cultural resources, and a reduction in law enforcement and protection. Fee revenue is not the panacea but it will go a long way towards helping us stem the reduction in the services and the quality of what we can provide for the public. I'd prefer if Congress would acknowledge that the investment in its national park system is worth the cost, but until then I think reasonable fees are indeed reasonable. Thank goodness for our park friends group, which has formed in recent years and raised money and organized volunteers to supplement what the NPS is able to do. I'm not comfortable with the industrial tourism model nor the increasing coziness of my agency with the recreation industry. But I can do what I can to assure that the fees and programs I implement serve the public, not the industry, interest.

Thanks for your feedback, Supt. Longstreet. You raise some good points regarding the financial struggles the Park Service is grappling with. Before I address them, I must correct myself. Scott Silver is not advocating that park entrance fees be eliminated. He merely raised the question to spur debate and dialogue, and that's exactly what needs to be done. I appreciate your interest in furthering this dialogue. As you point out, Congress holds the purse strings to the National Park Service. Sadly, our 535 elected representatives have not been performing their fiduciary duties to see that the agency is adequately funded. When year after year they can allocate billions of dollars for pork-barrel projects while the Park Service is struggling with the staff and program reductions you cite, something isn't working. An irony of this is that just as members of Congress are overlooking the Park Service's vital needs, members of Congress are clamoring to see a national park established in their home states, a move that places further financial burden on the entire system. Of course, I'm simplifying things for the purpose of this discussion. There are many agencies in addition to the Park Service that are being financially neglected by Congress. But the recent announcements of park entrance-fee increases is not going to solve the dilemma. Rather, it's going to create an illusion that an additional $5 per carload is going to make a significant improvement in a park's bottomline. Is it? And who decides when a "reasonable" fee becomes "unreasonable"? My fear is that some in Washington envision the day when a combination of funding streams -- entrance fees, concessionaire dollars, corporate sponsorships -- steadily negate the need for public funding. No doubt this fear is overblown for the immediate future. But I do worry that this approach to funding the Park Service will result in a commercialization of the park system, a degradation of the system as fewer and fewer tax dollars are made available to perform the very basic O&M needs, and, ultimately, a removal of the park system from the public that rightly owns it. The Park Service's funding woes did not arrive overnight. They can't be pinned to the Bush administration, although the president during his first campaign did pledge to wipe out the agency's maintenance backlog, a promise he's failed to meet. Indeed, NPS headquarters is having a hard time identifying for me the last time the agency didn't have a deficit. Some think it might have been as long ago as the 1960s, towards the end of the Mission 66 days. If we want to ensure that future generations enjoy the beauty and majesty of the park system that we inherited, I think there's a need for some serious discussion sooner than later. Thankfully, Rep. Mark Souder is carrying that torch forward with his hearings into park funding and support of the National Park Centennial Act. Unfortunately, I have yet to see substantial congressional support.

I don't think the USS Constitution Museum experience is at all comparable to the Yellowstone experience. Indeed, although Parks like Yellowstone do have entrance fees - a great many Parks, places like San Antonio Missions Cumberland Gap, do not. The USS Constituion Museum succeeded despite eliminating entrance fees because the Museum was a completely unknown destination - and because it was able to make up the lost revenue through increased sales of concessions. I don't know that we want the NPS to be relying upon increased concessions for revenues, and I don't think that eliminating entrance fees will boost "walk-in traffic" to a place like Yellowstone. And indeed, Parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite are perhaps struggling with the weight of too many visitors. Finally, the truth of the matter is that there are some Americans who have little love for the outdoors, and will probably spend little, if any, time of their lives in National Parks. Why shouldn't the people who spend the most time in the Parks contribute a bit more to the costs of maintaining the Parks than those who spend little or no time in the Parks? I think its only fair.

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