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The Growth of "Amenity Fees" In the Parks


    Thirty-five dollars for a ranger-led tour, four-hour minimum, in Big Bend National Park in Texas.
    Three dollars for a living history tour at Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site in Colorado.
    Ten dollars for an historic tour at Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma.
    Three-hundred dollars for a ranger-guided tour, up to eight hours, at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia.
    Ten dollars for a sled dog demonstration at Denali National Park and Preserve.
    Thirty-five dollars for a self-guided tour at Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts.
    Twelve dollars for a tour of the gun room at Springfield Armory National Historic Site.
    Most of the media attention of late regarding national parks has centered on entrance fees. All but overlooked are "amenity fees," a euphemism for "user fees," that are spreading like kudzu across the national park system as parks struggle to pay for upkeep, maintenance, and even salaries.
    Truth be told, park superintendents across the system were asked to "exercise a lot of creativity" in terms of fees to help pay for their operations, one superintendent told me.
    Last year such fees associated with park interpretation by the National Park Service brought in $4.4 million, and all but about $276,000 was pumped back into the system to help pay for programs.

    While the spate of fees might be approaching epidemic levels, Park Service officials point out that they're authorized to collect them under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA).
    "The NPS tracks all its revenue in our official finance system and fees collected must be in compliance with the fee authorities (laws) that they were authorized by," Jane Moore, the fee program manager in the Park Service's Washington, D.C., office, told me. "Each superintendent is ultimately accountable for assuring adherence to requirements of the various fee authorities (usually delineates how the money can be used) and NPS policies.
    "Our office can run reports on all the revenue and expenditures associated with fees collected under FLREA."
    FLREA proponents hail the legislation as a way for parks (and national forests) to recoup costs from the visiting public. Critics portray it as a "Recreation Access Tax," or RAT tax and note that the legislative provision that gave FLREA life was attached to an omnibus spending bill in the relative dark of night, never specifically voted on by either the U.S. House or U.S. Senate.
    Outwardly, there seems to be neither rhyme nor reason behind the setting of these amenity fees. Why does it cost $18 to walk through the FDR home and only $11 to tour Scotty's Castle in Death Valley?  Why does an America the Beautiful Pass, which gains you access to all national park units, all national forest fee areas, and all U.S. Bureau of Land Management fee areas, cost $80, and yet if you want an annual boat permit at Isle Royale National Park it costs $150?
    In truth, though, there is a system for determining appropriate fees, Ms. Moore told me.
    "Parks must complete a comparability study each year comparing their rates with other similar type activities in their locality," she says. "Rates are then vetted locally through civic engagement and then submitted annually through their regional office and then through the national office.The rates are reviewed and approved on an annual basis.
    "We have used comparability for many years as the best way for setting and adjusting amenity rates to ensure that rates are set fairly. We have had rates come down as well as go up. It depends on the local economy and the comparable," explained Ms. Moore. "Also, rates will not be standardized across the NPS because locality plays a big role. Some of our more expensive rates are in urban areas where costs are generally higher."

    Of course, one could argue that urban areas have a higher percentage of low-income families that could least afford to pay $18 per person to tour FDR's home, while the folks who make the long, expensive trek to Death Valley could easily afford to pay a bit more to tour Scotty's Castle. (Having been to Scotty's Castle, a wondrous mansion, I wonder what they compared it to, as there's nothing like it in the region unless you drive about 100 miles to Las Vegas.)
    With insufficient federal dollars to fuel the Park Service, is it any surprise the agency and its managers are being forced to get creative with FLREA?
    At Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, a sprawling preserve that makes it impractical to collect entrance fees, Superintendent Russ Smith received permission to charge $2 for adults ($1 for seniors) to watch the park's 20-minute visitor center film. At Mesa Verde National Park, it costs $3 per adult to tour Balcony House, Long House or Cliff Palace.
    At Natchez National Historical Park, the House Tour costs you $8. At Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, regularly scheduled interpretive programs run $3 per person or $8 per family.
    When you consider park budgets, you can sympathize with the superintendents for eying amenity fees.
    Superintendent Smith at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park has a $3.7 million annual budget. His staff is authorized at 48 positions, but his budget only pays for 44. Ninety-six percent of his budget is eaten up by non-discretionary items, things like staff salaries and utilities. "We only have 4 percent to work with for supplies and materials and anything else we need," Superintendent Smith says.
    Oh, and that eight-hour, $300 ranger-led tour of the battlefields? That price normally is charged large groups, such as bus tours, and it goes to fund seasonal employees who can cover for the rangers giving the extended tours.
    "That's a luxury that we can't afford to provide anymore unless we have a fee," Superintendent Smith told me of the half-day and day-long tours. "Otherwise we can't afford to have somebody at the visitor center desk."
    Don't want to pony up such a fee for a day in the park? Not a problem. There are enough free, 45-minute-long programs offered daily throughout the summer that you easily could put together a four-hour program of your own, according to the superintendent.   
    In light of the funding woes, and the direction from Washington, it shouldn't be surprising that more and more amenity fees are popping up. But part of the problem with them -- beyond the philosophical question, which I'll get to in a moment -- is that the revenues can't be, or aren't supposedly to be, spent directly on full-time park staff. So, in theory, you could use fees to build a visitor center, but not use the revenues to staff that center, unless you relied on volunteers or seasonals.
    "Visitor surveys at parks show a clear visitor preference for access to uniformed staff as being an important and desired part of their park experience," one ranger told me. "In spite of this, park requests to use visitor fees to provide improved levels of services are routinely denied. Senior NPS officials have established internal policies that essentially forbid using visitor fees for park operations in spite of the clear language and intent of the (FLREA) law.
    "This has frustrated many park superintendents and program managers who feel visitors are being mislead with promises for improved services at the very time the agency seems bent on squeezing ever-higher amounts of money from the public."
    Another problem is how the program is administered through the Park Service's cumbersome Project Management Information System, or PMIS. This system begins at the park level and runs up through the regional offices to headquarters in Washington. Along the way park proposals for spending fee revenues are vetted, rated, and prioritized.

    With more than 130,000 project requests flowing through PMIS at any one time, coupled with the various stages of review, it's not unheard of for one project to be held in limbo for as many as five years before being funded.
    And then there's the philosophical question: Should national parks, which officially were placed in the public trust in 1916 with passage of the National Park Service Organic Act, charge the public to enter and enjoy their beauty and wonders? After all, the original language of the act specified that no natural curiosities, wonders, or objects of interest shall be leased, rented, or granted to anyone on such terms as to interfere with free access to them by the public.
    Of course, back in 1916 there were only a handful of parks and Congress no doubt didn't consider today's cumulative costs of operating and maintaining the park system. Salaries and benefits, utility costs and higher energy prices affect everyone; the NPS is not exempt.
    And so while it might be understandable and even reasonable to charge a minimal fee to help defray the costs of operating Scotty's Castle or running the Tobyhanna Valley Steam Train down the rails at Steamtown National Historic Site, should we have to pay to watch a 20-minute film, attend a living history program at Bent's Old Fort, take a self-guided tour at Lowell National Historical Park, or even for a four-hour or full-day tour at Fredericksburg?
    At the National Parks Conservation Association, Craig Obey tells me his organization is concerned about the growth of fees across the park system.
    "What we want to be sure of is that fees aren't raised simply because there isn't adequate federal support," says Mr. Obey, NPCA's vice president for government affairs. "That's what it's so important to be funding the operations of the parks, so the federal government is dealing with its core responsibility.
    "... To me, the staffing of the parks is a core responsibility of the federal government That’s why we’re pushing so hard to get additional positions funded for the Park Service," Mr. Obey added. "And I think there was a start this year with the (3,000) seasonal rangers for next season. But it’s just a start. It’s got to be a sustained effort and more to come in the future. What we want to see is the federal government meeting its responsibility.”
    True, the president's fiscal 2008 budget proposal also calls for another 1,500 full-time rangers across the system, but it will take more than that to improve on years of relatively flat funding. 
    At Fredericksburg, Superintendent Smith doesn't like charging visitors $2 to view the visitor center films. But for now he has no other option.

    "I think that, ideally, the core visitor experience, the experience that every visitor to the park should have in order to obtain a basic understanding of the resources, should be free," he told me.


I think charging fees for stuff like this has the psycological effect of making "our parks" into "their parks." If, as a tax-paying citizen, I have access to a public commons, then I think of it as something I share. If I have to pay a fee to use it, then it becomes "their's" -- they being whoever is collecting the fee, or seems to be in authority.

After driving miles out of our way for the priveledge of viewing Mount Rushmore we were unable to. On our last visit circa 2002, some more distant parking was still free. We did not budget that $8 fee for the two cars in our party. We simply did not have the cash. And naturally anywhere we could park to view it was posted warning of big fines. South Dakota won't be receiving our commerce anymore on our yearly trip to visit relatives. Our family's gross income last year with two full time wage earner's was less than $26,000. Truly these "minor" fees are preventing some of us the right to participate in our public lands.

If it makes you feel better, Mount Rushmore is a waste of your $8; it's a monstrosity carved into the Black Hills of the faces of four men who either all called for genocide of native peoples or who (in the case of Lincoln) would not help indigenous peoples because he believed it was inevitable. It's no irony that these were the four carved into that mountain. However, as to your point about fees, I agree with you. I just hope people will be consistent and see that ALL user fees are unjust. If society deems that something is a common service, then you can't stratify who uses it based on class. We see the same thing with public transportation in the cities, for instance. I grew up in a family of modest means; I know how many vacations never happened because we didn't have the money. The ones that happened were often credit card vacations where cash was scarce (though most parks do allow credit cards for transactions). The piper always gets paid one way or another. If this is an issue of simply park user fees, your case of course an exception, this is still mostly a middle class issue and a sign that this is a privilege issue. If this is about the broader issue of user fees, how they are used as class markers (as well as a marker on the road to privatization - that case is easy to make based on so many other experiences), then this can be a compelling argument. The, "I don't mind paying a reasonable fee" argument is crap. It's not about you (not you, the poster, the "you" who says that); it's about everyone, especially if we really believe that parks are a collective value. Jim

Just for everyone's information... Tours of Scotty's Castle would not exist without charging a fee. The living history interpretive program at Scotty's is entirely funded by the user fees collected for the tours. That $11 you pay to tour the castle essentially pays the salary of the ranger giving the tour. However, the curatorial and maintenance needs are still funded through the larger park budget. Unfortunately I can't remember the exact year, but back in the early 1990s, the managers at Death Valley were faced with a choice due to funding constraints--either close the castle to tours or find another way to fund the operation. Presenting "costumed interpretation" allows Scotty's to keep 100% of the users fees collected. There has been a fee charged for a tour of Scotty’s Castle for a long time. However, it is a fairly recent development in the history of NPS operations there that user fees have had to be used in this way. The user fee would certainly be less if the tours operation were supplemented otherwise. I agree that this issue raises some important philosophical questions, and I’ve seen both user fees and entrance fees turn people away from park resources. Would it be acceptable to not charge a fee at Scotty's Castle, shut down the tours, and have visitors take a self guided tour of the grounds? Or, it is better to charge a fee knowing that some will not see the inside, and possibly not have a more meaningful experience? I believe everyone should be able to experience public lands and historic sites for free. Whether it's right or not, I foresee that more and more parks will look to amenity fees in order to fill some gaps in operational budgets, especially if the Centennial Initiative doesn’t live up to the hype. And Kurt, if you can track down the specifics of it, you might want to investigate how Acadia National Park uses fees from boat tours and other special programs to fund their free ranger programs. Without the revenue generated from the ranger narrated, but concession operated, boat tours, Acadia’s interpretive program would not be nearly as extensive as it is today. I enjoy your website. Keep up the good work.

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