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Bracing For the America The Beautiful Pass


    Just yesterday I was talking about the impact higher fees have on national park visitation. Well, today I'm breaking the news to you that it soon will cost you more to get into your national parks. Possibly a lot more. And that most likely will further impact visitation levels and pull national parks, and other public lands, farther away from the American citizens whose taxes pay for their upkeep and operation.
    You see, just about the time you're celebrating New Year's Eve, the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be rolling out a new user pass that's intended to get you into not only national parks, but all public lands administered by those agencies.
    That pass, dubbed the "America the Beautiful -- The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass" -- will replace the National Parks Pass. And you can expect to pay quite a bit more for it, too. While the Parks Pass has sold in recent years for $50, I'm hearing this new pass could cost in the neighborhood of $80. And I don't think it's an unreasonable guess to say daily entrance fees somehow also will be affected.
    What's this all mean? Well, as
Scott Silver, the executive director of Wild Wilderness puts it, you'll soon be assessed a higher tax for using your national parks, not merely a higher user fee.

    No doubt the federal agencies, who plan to formally introduce the new pass and its price tag next week, will tout it as being a wonderful tool for gaining access to public lands while also helping provide additional revenues for the land-management agencies.
    Well, that might be so. Or it might further alienate Americans from the lands they supposedly own.
    A draft document that outlines the "America the Beautiful -- the National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Pass" -- (I know, that's a mouthful, but somebody long ago copyrighted "America the Beautiful" and the even the "ATB" acronym is off-limits) points to higher fees in more places than simply the outright cost of the card.
    For instance, while the old Parks Pass got you and everyone in your car or motor-home into a park, the draft document says this new pass will cover entrance to fee areas for "the pass holder and up to 3 persons, not to exceed 4 persons (16 and older)."
    In other words, if you and your spouse have five children, and three of them are between 16 and 21, you'll have to pay a bit more to get everyone into the park. How much more I can't say, as the draft document doesn't outline those costs and even the NPS communications folks in Washington haven't been clued in yet to the finer details of this program.
    Motorcyclists also will face a higher cost of gaining entrance to a national park. In the past, you see, many fee areas charged motorcyclists the individual fee. Under the revamped program, motorcyclists will be charged the full vehicle fee.   
    That's a snapshot of what you can expect beginning January 1, 2007. Now, not surprisingly, not everyone thinks this is a grand idea for our public lands. Indeed, they fear it's merely one more step in hiking fees to gain access to our public lands.
    "I think it will lead to a continuing spiraling upward of entrance and user fees and, in turn, a continuing decline in park visitation," says Bill Wade, chair of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees' executive council.
    "I believe that fees are likely to be the biggest cause of the decline, over the past decade or so," he adds. "It is becoming clearer to me that the Congress should bite the bullet and abolish all entrance fees to national parks and substitute appropriated funds to the levels needed to cover all essential costs of operating national parks. Only in that way will we not be discriminating against those who can't afford to visit their national heritage areas and will we be sending the message that these areas belong to ALL Americans, not just those who can afford to pay."
    Over at Wild Wilderness, Silver has been following the slow march to this pass for more than a decade. Not surprisingly, he has an opinion on this latest evolution of public lands fees, the one that will force you to dig even deeper into your pocket to see and enjoy lands supposedly owned by the public.
    "If you purchase an ATB, the money ends up being distributed amongst five agencies, nationwide," says Silver. "It does not pay for the service received. It is a TAX on recreation. As for the distribution of money within that pool of five agencies, the NPS is almost certainly going to come up with the short end of the stick.
    "It used to be that people bought NPS passes. Under fee-demo, if you bought an NPS pass, the money stayed with the NPS. Now you will buy a public lands pass," he explains. "If you buy it from the USFS, they keep the money. If you buy it from the BLM, they keep the money. If you buy it from REI, the money is split by formula."
    Now, you might ask, who is the perpetrator behind this slow but steady escalation in fees to see and enjoy lands we supposedly own? The American Recreation Coalition, the folks behind motorized recreation on public lands, says Silver.
    "ATB is ARC's dream," he says. "It's a great deal for people who squat on public lands -- ie., full-time motor-homers. They will be the chief beneficiaries."
    Indeed, the new program provides substantial discounts for retirees. Not only will seniors age 62 and above be charged just $10 for a lifetime pass, but they'll also enjoy upwards of 50 percent off some services offered in national parks and other public lands.
    "The ARC does not represent a broad spectrum of users," says Silver. "They are FIRST and FOREMOST a motor-home association. They created a fee program for four agencies that did not charge fees and then created what amounts to a discount card for the people they serve. The reason ARC created this pass is to cut the cost of camping for full-time senior motor-homers."
    Sound like a conspiracy theory? Perhaps. But Silver has a wealth of information to back up his claims. To check it out, visit this site. Indeed, the draft document I have names the American Recreation Coalition front and center when touching on the stakeholders who had a role in developing this pass.
    Now, what also concerns me about this new pass, aside from the increased cost and the eventual revenue split, are "technological characteristics that will make the passes convenient to use and purchase," as the draft document puts it.
    "Technological characteristics"? Will we soon see the day when entrance stations are no longer staffed by rangers, but rather operate like ATMs? If so, that sadly is another step backward for the Park Service.
    Too, will these "technological characteristics" lead to more and more previously fee-free lands across the national forest system and BLM empire being gated and opened only to cardholders? That doesn't take too much of a stretch of the imagination, does it?
    Hopefully next week more information will be available. Hopefully much of the draft document will have changed by then.
    Too, it will be interesting to see whether any of the agencies conducted any surveys to see whether the higher fees will affect visitation. It also will be curious to see if they did any economic studies to project the loss in revenue the National Park Service could encounter as people turn their backs on the parks rather than pay the higher fees.
    No, I don't think this pass is a good idea. Not only does it represent higher fees for use and enjoyment of public lands, but it carries the possibility that five agencies soon will be fighting one another for the shrinking revenue pool this pass might create.
    I agree with Wade, Silver and others who believe entrance fees to our national parks and public lands should be abolished. Let's keep them open to all-comers.


Charge motorcycles more? Good. I hope it keeps those noisy vehicles out of the parks. They are as much a noise nuisance as snowmobiles. In general, I support the principle that those who use the parks should pay more than the average (and already soaked) taxpayer. Is the money going to stay in the NPS or just go to the general fund? I think most park visitors would support paying higher fees if the parks got the revenue.

Everyone gets benefits from public lands in some way or another, whether it be by direct use or from environmental services. Aside from that, public land conservation is such a small part of the budget--why should the overburdened taxpayer pay for an expensive war from which he is deriving no benefit? The government does things, some people derive benefit, some don't--but we all pay. That's how it works. And I don't think this is a simple as higher fee = more money for park. If the decline in visitation outweighs the fee increase, and Congress decides that higher fees justify lower appropriations... it could be very bad. It depends on the park. This summer I worked down at Guadalupe Mountains, and my boss was concerned that proposed fee increases (from $3 per adult to $9 per adult) would have a severe negative impact. One, most park visitors are just taking a break from the highway--they'll do maybe one day-hike and go, which is reasonable if the fee is only $3. But if you're paying $9 for a couple miles of hiking, it becomes less appealing. In addition, the park is trying to reach out to the local Hispanic people, who are on average less affluent and already less likely to visit parks. A fee increase will be quite damaging to this effort. $9 may not seem like much, but for one of America's least visited parks, it's a big deal. As is the park is understaffed, especially in regards to backcountry patrol and trail maintenance. Historic buildings are only kept open by interns and volunteers. What if the fee drives even more people away?

I have never had qualms about paying a fee to get onto a national wildlife refuge or national park. Or even to use a Forest Service parking area in New Hampshire for the few minutes it took us to view a nearby waterfall. But I object to the government's badly skewed budget priorities: Buying Cold War-era weaponry while forcing the National Wildlife Refuge System to lay off staffers, and throwing money into Bush's wars as if the stuff grew on trees (pun intended). I've been buying federal Duck Stamps for many years while visiting national wildlife refuges on the East Coast (Bombay Hook, Chincoteague among them). The sale of these stamps generates revenue that's plowed directly back into conservation -- the purchase of land, specifically wetlands, for conservation. The NPS and FWS, among other agencies, receive a miniscule portion of the federal budget, even in the best of years.

I work at Arkabutla Lake in Northwest Mississippi and have been searching for in our area that persons can purchase the America the Beautiful pass but have not been able to find any. Do you have any information as to where these can be purchased in the North Mississippi, West Tennessee area?

Debby, you might try the Holly Springs National Forest or St. Francis National Forest. Or, without leaving home, on-line at

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