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Entrance Fee Hikes: Time to Say No?


    Like a slow trickle of water pounding on your forehead, the pace of entrance fee hikes throughout the national park system is growing increasingly painful.
Passart2_copy    Of course, many reached for the aspirin bottle back in December when the Interior Department broke the news that the beloved $50 National Parks Pass was being supplanted by the $80 America the Beautiful, National Parks and Federal Lands Recreation Pass.
    Since that piece of plastic was forced upon us, there's been a steady stream of press clippings announcing either done deals on entrance fee hikes or detailing proposed fee hikes. And, surprisingly, there have been a handful of editorials opposing the increases! For instance, the Visalia Times-Delta had this to say about a planned hike from $20 to $25 for daily entry to Sequoia/Kings Canyon national parks:
    An admission price of $25 per car is close to shutting out the poorer families of our area, especially in these times. And if the cost of viewing these natural wonders in our parks deters even a single family from enjoying them, that is counterproductive to what the park service's mission should be.
The Miami New Times was even more direct in its opposition to a proposed doubling of the $10 fee for driving into Everglades, saying that in the face of declining visitation the Park Service seems intent on making "it harder for people to visit..."

    Of course, way back in January a congressman, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, called for a halt to the fee increase specifically planned for Crater Lake National Park and for those in general across the park system.
    “It doesn’t make sense to increase park fees while national parks are struggling to attract visitors,” DeFazio said at the time. “I am concerned that the increase in fees at Crater Lake will discourage regular visits by Oregon families."
    As for the rest of the national park system, the congressman believes funding solutions need to come from the federal government, not from visitors.
    "I agree that the national park system is in need of additional funding, but raising fees for park visitors will only drive visitors away. Instead, the Department of the Interior should raise the money it needs to improve the park system by collecting the royalties that oil companies owe the United States,” he says.
Passart1_copy_2    Can we expect a respite from these proposed increases? Not in the near future or without congressional intervention. This stream of fee increases has been in the works for a while as the Park Service, I've been told, "
is trying to establish a consistent, across-the-board fee structure composed of four tiers. Most parks have not increased fees since 1997."
    Here's some additional background to what's transpiring:
     The goal of the new pricing structure is to have entrance fees support NPS goals, be consistent, simple to administer and adjust with inflation while providing the public with a pricing structure that is fair, equitable and easy to understand. The model has four pricing categories based primarily on the legislative designation of the site: National Monument, National Historic Site, large destination National Parks and other National Parks. The consistent pricing points were based on services provided and the similarity of resources.
    Now, during FY06 I understand 23 NPS units boosted their entrance fees to mesh with the new fee structure. During this fiscal year another 11-13 are scheduled to implement the new pricing, and in FY 2008 the bulk of the park units (approximately 85) will align with the fee structure model.
    Any park units that haven't boosted their fees by FY09 will do it then.
    Now, truth be told, I've been trying since the second week of January to get the Park Service to provide a breakdown of park units in each of those four tiers and the associated entrance fee price and, after I don't know how many emails and even some phone calls, haven't been able to garner that information.
    At least not from the Park Service.
    I have become aware of a spreadsheet of some proposed and enacted fee hikes for FY06, FY07, and FY08. Among the jumps planned for FY07 is a $5 bump, to $20, at Big Bend; a $5 boost, to $25, at Bryce Canyon; the aforementioned doubling at Everglades; a $5 increase at Mesa Verde, to $15; and a doubling, to $20, at Theodore Roosevelt. At Black Canyon of the Gunnison, this summer's jump to $15 is an 88 percent increase from the previous $8 fee.
    Now, a sad irony of these fee increases is that the Park Service could actually lose money on these deals when you also factor in the America the Beautiful Pass. Let's say you go to a handful of parks a year, or go to the same one or two parks a handful of times. Well, you'd be smart to shell out the $80 for the ATB Pass rather than pay $25 each visit. And if you did that not only would the park lose that daily entrance fee, but if you bought your ATB Pass at a Forest Service or BLM office, those agencies would keep the lion's share of your $80 and the Park Service would get a pittance.
    And if you bought your pass at REI or EMS or some other retail outlet, well, no one is publicly saying exactly how those revenues will be distributed.
    And if all that happens, how would the Park Service be able to "support its goals"?
    What's particularly distasteful about this fee onslaught, aside from the fact that our tax dollars supposedly paid/pay for the parks and that Congress and the various administrations are failing in their obligation to fully fund the Park Service, is that the legislation that started this process, the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, never really got its day in Congress.
    Rather, sleight-of-hand was used to attach it as a rider to an appropriations bill and it made its way to the president's desk for signature without full consideration by the House of Representatives or even introduction into the Senate (which I understand ain't too happy about that oversight). 
    And justice for all? Not in this case.
    So what to do? Should you just sit back, sigh heavily, and reach deeper into your wallet the next time you want to enter your favorite national park? Should you simply stop going to national parks? Or should you take some action?
    Choose door No. 3.
    In the House of Representatives, Congressman Nick Joe Rahall is the new chair of the House Resources Committee and earlier this year he announced his intentions to examine a number of Park Service issues, including entrance fees. So, you might voice your concerns over the fee situation at his site.
    Another congressman to complain to is Rep. Raul Grijalva, who chairs the House national parks subcommittee. Just go to his website and click the bright yellow "e-mail Raul" button on the upper righthand column.
    On the Senate side, contact Senator Jeff Bingaman, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight over national parks. You can reach him via this site.
    Of course, you also could speak up when your favorite national park announces a proposed entrance fee increase and asks for your reaction.
    Will such lobbying do any good? It surely can't hurt.


I think another question to ask, is whether the entrance fees are fulfilling there original purpose, which was in-part, to help parks fund projects outside of the scope of the NPS budget. These were supposed to be projects like more wayside interpretive signs, and even to help with the maintenance backlogs. A lot of people stood behind the fees for this reason, including the NPCA - But today, park fees are being assigned based on a perception of a recreational value, the logic of which says a visit to Grand Canyon is worth more than a visit to Chaco and should be priced accordingly. As visitors, we are no longer asked to pay this extra tax to cover the extra services we will receive, we are now being asked to cover the shortcomings of the federal budget for core park operations. At some point, we have to say, this is not how you fund a federal agency. Imagine if we funded public schools this way, and every week students had to pay a fee to enter the classroom. Education from the most popular teachers would cost more than the lesser known ones. A sub-class of student would emerge who could afford the popular teachers, the rest would just have to consider themselves lucky to have any education at all. Then there would be some kids who would never come to school, because having to spend any additional tax for a public service was beyond their means. The wealthy would accept this model because they could afford it, but the silent majority wouldn't know they had a voice. The Grand Canyon is now $25 a car. Are there tax paying families which cannot afford this? If the price keeps going up, at what point would you not be able to afford your own visit? I agree with Kurt, why not speak now rather than wait until you too are priced out, when it might be too late to speak.

I doubt that anyone driving to the Grand Canyon cannot afford to pay $25 to get in. The Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Loop is roughly 200 miles - conservatively estimating vehicle costs @ $0.385 means a family just spent $77 just driving there from the nearest city. Can they afford to drive there but not afford to pay the entrance fee? Sure, it would be great if we didn't have to pay fees to use public lands, but that just isn't realistic anymore. If the market determines that $25 is fair value for the benefits and experiences achieved by one's visit, than $25 should be the cost. If demand goes down, so will the price. If someone has a philosophical objection to user fees on public lands, I can accept that. I just happen to disagree. I agree with you that it would be great if fees weren't the way we funded a federal agency, but this is the way it is. The money has to come from somewhere.

"If the market determines that $25 is fair value for the benefits and experiences achieved by one's visit, than $25 should be the cost. If demand goes down, so will the price." Wrong. Wrong. And wrong. Demand HAS gone done, but fees are going up. Visitation has slumped at many "premier" parks. The news has been full recently of parks complaining about declining visitation. If that's the case, they should be lowering fees to attract more visitors, not raising them. The market is not determining the fees. The government is setting them, and rather arbitrarily in my opinion.

If the higher fees mean fewer visitors, great. The land can use a rest from the trampling hordes.

The market will determine the fees. If the seller prices their product too high (a strong argument can be made that this is the case), then people will stop buying it and prices will (eventually, in normal cases) go down. Of course, this is not a normal case, since we are talking about the NPS - but I'll still stand by the power of people not to purchase a product, especially one as readily available as most of what the park service has to offer. Sure, they have the "premier" parks, but almost all of what you find there is available via USFS or BLM for a very reduced rate or in many cases, for no fee at all - and usually right outside the NPS' boundary. You just have to look for it. I'm a believer in paying for what you use. If you use public lands for recreation, you should pay for it. Maybe your "premier" parks should be $15 instead of $25, but I personally don't believe it should be $0.

So, Kurt, when you read that the parks are simply a marketable commodity defined in terms of their use, it makes you write some of the essays you have about romanticism, eh? I would just like to remind you that though the parks have inspired us all to a poetry we could scarcely think possible, their being as "parks" has always been a reality based on something like what Matt talks about here. So, the question becomes one of economics and the ethics of economics...Matt should be writing propaganda for the World Bank with this rhetoric (perhaps, we should also charge tolls for the sidewalks as well)...and yet his view is the one from which the parks arose. The very word "park" suggests a utilitarian (that is, use) notion. And, use...well, comes with a cost, but who collects, and who pays, and how is it paid for and collected, and on and dreary, but that's all we're talking about here. This view can be challenged, but I think the harsh truth is that it means confronting those people that are hallowed among parks advocates. Perhaps, it's a form of patricide, but I can't see how we deal with this view of land and use without daring ourselves to go all the way. Jim

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