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Are Entrance Fees Behind Visitation Slump?


    Earlier today I told you about the room glut at Yellowstone. And earlier this year I posted about a congressional hearing into park visitation trends. In both posts I touched on possible reasons behind the decline in national park visitation that has occurred since visitation peaked at 287 million visitors in 1999.
    Reasons cited range from high gas prices and too many other recreation alternatives to poor weather, hurricanes, a weak economy and even video games. Well, I was reminded earlier today of another possible cause behind the trend: increases in national park entrance fees.
    Now, I personally don't have a problem with park entrance fees. I spend $50 a year for a parks pass and visit as many parks as many times as I want. I feel the fee is reasonable, especially since 80 percent of it remains in the park where I buy the pass for on-the-ground work. I figure it's the least I can do for the national park system.
    Of course, not everyone heads to the parks as often as I do, and so they might skip that $50 investment and opt for paying the fee at the gate, which can range from nothing at Great Smoky Mountains National Park to $25 at Yellowstone.
    Might that $25 fee be an effective deterrent for some folks?

    That's an intriguing question, and one I'd like to hear from you on. Are the parks, which we theoretically already pay for through our taxes, pricing themselves out of the market? You wouldn't think so, not when you consider how much it costs these days to go out to dinner, to catch a movie or even to go bowling.'s something to consider. Especially when you hear what Canadians in British Columbia discovered. According to a story in the Vancouver Sun, an increase in parking-meter fees at provincial parks in British Columbia drove down visitation to those parks by about 1 million a year. And that was just for a $2 fee increase, from $3 to $5!
    Here's a snippet from the story:
        In May 2005, Management Services Minister Joyce Murray suggested the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the SARS outbreak may have depressed visits to parks.
        "And we had major forest fires that closed down half of British Columbia," she added. "So, not too surprising, park visits were down."      
        But a report by consultants Perrin, Thorau & Associates Ltd. -- commissioned by Environment Minister Barry Penner last fall -- leaves little doubt that parking fees are the main culprit.
        Using a sophisticated calculation based on everything from average temperatures to demographics, the report concluded that 75 per cent of the lost visits to parks "were due to the imposition of day use parking fees."

    Interesting, no? A $2 increase in parking fees was enough to persuade about 1 million folks to shun provincial parks. At Yellowstone, where visitation has declined the past three years running and is off almost 300,000 annually since 1999, the entrance fee has gone up $5 in the past year alone.
    So, help me with an unscientific study: Are increases in entrance fees enough to keep you away from the national parks?


Increased enterance fees don't have much effect on my choosing whether to go to a national park or not. I'm fairly close to some really great national parks, but I don't get to them nearly as much as I would like, that has more to do with school, work and somewhat distance. A trip to a National Park is something very special for me, I know I'll get my (how much is it now $20) worth when I go to Yosemite once a year. $10 (or so) is well worth a weekend in Joshua Tree. I am lucky enough to live very close to plenty of California State Parks, and fees there do influence my visiting habits. They generally only charge parking fees, so I ride my bike as much as possible. Or park outside and walk a bit longer to get to the trailhead. The fees they charge (only $6) add up. I hike at least once a week, which adds up very quickly. That would be at least $20 a month or $240 a year (at the bare minimum) if I had to pay their fees everytime I visited. I would not be able to visit nearly as much. By contrast, I only get to National Parks at the most four times a year, which I could buy a pass for $50 to cover that. I think National Parks are a great deal even with their fees, and personally think other things are keeping people away.

As a tourist visisting parks as my vacation, fees do not have any influence on me visiting them. I just went through Custer State Park and Needles Highway in SD and didn't think twice about paying the fee, I don't even know how much I paid. Because it is once, and it is a small price to pay to contribute to the future so my can see them hopefully in the same natural condition as I was fortunate enough to see them in. In WI, where I live, I visit many state parks all of which are covered by one vehicle pass ($35??) purchased every year. Again the fee does not impact my decision to purchase the pass. Probably becuase they are so minimal relative to my frequency of use. But if I had to pay a fee everytime I used them, even a couple dollar hike would make me reconsider at least a portion of my visits. And with that they might actaully lose money. Consider state campground fees, WI uses Reserve America, the base fee for a night stay is $9 - $19, cheap right? Then you tack on a $10 reservation fee and suddenly it is $24 a night for a weekend. I can pay that (maybe slightly more) and stay in a private campground with much more ammenities and a pool! So they are losing my business for camping, therefore losing revenue. Plus I need the state parks sticker I mentioned earlier, now maybe I won't go at all (to state parks). Now the state stands to lose $300 - $400 from me annually, because I camp a TON!! So fees do have an impact, obviously they have to approach this as a business decision, not a governmental mandate.

It's not the fees. $20 or $25 for a car full of people is nothing compared to fees for theme parks. I'm about to head to Yosemite and the $20 never factored into the decision; I usually don't even think about it until I'm near the entrance station. But I'd add another factor to your list of why national park visitation is down: the growing obesity problem in this country. An obese person is going to see even the most moderate of hikes as daunting. So they skip the parks and head for somewhere less physically challenging. Overall though, isn't it better for the parks and avid park visitors to not be so crowded?

I have no overriding problem with fees. I happily fork over $15 a year to buy a federal Duck Stamp, which we use as our entrance ticket to some national wildlife refuges. The revenue from the sale of Duck Stamps goes into a fund from which money is drawn periodically to buy land for refuges, specifically wetlands. It's a great way to contribute directly toward conservation. But with park entrance fees it's my sense that they're being used not to bolster operating budgets that Congress cut, but as an excuse for Congress not funding the parks to the level they should be. In the longer term, they're just as likely to be precusors toward the privatization of some parks.

Compared with other things on a family vacation, the $20 or so that's charged per vehicle for 7 days in a National Park is a great deal. Often, it's the stuff that we do in addition to the park that drains my wallet. Taking a 3-hour whale-watching cruise in Bar Harbor with a family of four, for example, would take care of an entire month's worth of fees in Acadia. Of course, it's hard to see those whales from inside the park!

Compared with prices for movies, theme parks, etc., park entrance fees are more than reasonable. And if the Whiny Family -- Mom, Dad and all the little Whinys -- opts to spend that money playing video games or whatever, then great, a little more open space for the rest of us. Face it, Congress is not going to fund the parks to the level they need. And remember, those funds come out of our pocketbook just like an entrance fee, except we pay taxes whether we go to the park or not! What's the alternatives: Six Flags Over Mesa Verde? Halliburton drilling in Zion? I just hope there's some way of ensuring that the fees actually go for park improvements and not to buy an new chair for some fat Washington bureaucrat's oversized tush!

If fees are the issue, how do you explain decreased visitation at areas that charge no fees?

I think the issue is not wether the visitor is willing to pay fees, the Park Service has surveyed and public scoped that issue and would not charge fees if the public were not tolerant. The real issue is what happens to the fees that are collected? The current fee use laws mandate that most of these fees go back into the park where generated to improve visitor services. That sounds wonderful as long as it doesn't follow the Lottery model. Lotteries send many dollars to schools and the politicians in turn cut general funds from the schools to spend on pet projects. The schools end up with the same funding they had before. It would be interesting to see real dollar spending for the parks since the Fee Use program started. Not just the budget and fee use money but total spending within each park by the Park Service and all it's partners. The term soft money exists in more places than just the political parties.

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