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Paying To Understand U.S. History in the National Park System


Officials at Gettysburg National Military Park are rethinking the fee structure for their new museum because it's falling far short of fiscal projections. NPS rendering.

Remember the good old days, when you could enter a national park and there was no cost to hike a trail, tour a museum, or enjoy nature? Well, those days seemingly are fleeting. In a move likely to disappoint many, the folks at Gettysburg National Military Park are thinking of charging a fee to access their museum.

Growth of fees in national parks is not new, only disappointing. Do you remember this Traveler post from June 2007?

How much would you pay to hike a trail in Shenandoah, or Great Smoky Mountains or Sequoia? What do you think is a reasonable fee to take a dip at Cape Cod or Cape Hatteras national seashores?

As I pointed out earlier this month, more and more fees are being attached to things that long have been free in the parks. That swim in the Atlantic Ocean? At Cape Cod it will cost you a minimum of $3 if you walk onto a beach patrolled by a Park Service lifeguard, $15 if you drive onto the beach's parking lot.

And, truthfully, more and more parks are charging you for the privilege to simply cross into their landscapes. Seemingly, it's only going to be a matter of time before you encounter more and more fees once inside the parks.

How about this one?

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.

And now Gettysburg wants to retool its fee structure with a proposal to charge you $7.50 to walk through their new National Military Park Museum. The fee is needed, officials say, because they are falling far short of their goals to cover the costs of the $103 million facility, which opened back in April.

“We’ve tried just about everything,” Gettysburg Superintendent John A. Latschar told reporters the other day. “We’re just not meeting the goals and hitting our numbers. Nothing was working, so we came to a conclusion that the best thing we could do is change the fee structure.”

As proposed that $7.50 would provide you entrance to the museum, viewing of its 22-minute video, and a walk past the Cyclorama painting.

To be sure, this facility sounds like a wonderful experience. It's said to be able to house 300,000 Civil War artifacts and about 700,000 archival documents. Of those, about 7 percent will be on display at any one time. Among those items is Robert E. Lee's camp desk.

This new fee structure is being considered because the initial one failed miserably. The museum has been charging folks $8 to watch that 22-minute film, and less than a quarter of the museum's visitors had been opting for that, according to officials. And, with the restored Cyclorama painting to be ready for viewing next month, the plan had been to charge visitors $12 to view both the video and the painting.

Now that plan is being reconsidered, as under the current fee structure the museum was on track to lose nearly $2 million a year.

The financial picture raises a number of questions.

* Did those who laid out the vision for the new museum overshoot reality? In their desire to best showcase, preserve, and explain Civil War history, did they over-estimate the paying market?

* Did anyone conduct a market study to see what the public was willing to pay?

* Could Gettysburg have survived with a little less interpretive opulence?

Beyond those questions, there's a very basic one: Should Gettysburg visitors have to pay to see these vestiges of one of the United States' most defining conflicts?

Aren't the national parks, in theory (but not in reality) paid for with our tax dollars, supposed to be our gift to ourselves and all who are curious about our nation's natural and cultural history?

The restructured fee schedule is now open for 30 days of public comment. A public workshop is set for September 18, and Gettysburg officials hope to have a final decision by September 29.


It's darn tricky & risky to invest money in a tourist-facility, without losing your shirt. Even if you know what you're doing, and are good at it.

This interpretive center at Gettysburg is a roadside tourist-trap, an idea & concept simple as dirt and almost as old. The realities of this sort of enterprise are thoroughly familiar to generations of American families who have tried to run businesses based on slowing the migratory tourist herd enough that some of their money stays behind.

It's tough & fickle, even for those who've been at it for a lifetime. Several lifetimes.

Obviously, the Gettysburg center will be affected by fuel-costs, just like any other tourism venue. In some cases, the fuel issue will play your way - it does, here on the Olympic Peninsula, where the nearby greater-Seattle urban region is extra-far from everywhere else, and extra-close to us. Meanwhile, other destinations are struggling.

The National Park System would do itself a big favor to view these historic-interest sites they're developing as part of the normal boom 'n bust, generally unreliable tourist-business. That's what they are, and doctoring it up to be loftier than that is a recipe for embarrassment.
I improve my chances of making sense of the issues, by not confusing national historic battlefields with ecological preserves. Thinking of both classes of assets as 'parks' is too much like self-abuse.

Gettysburg's new museum and visitor center may be a lot of things, but "roadside tourist trap" is certainly not one of them.

Bob Janiskee,

I greatly respect your academic credentials, and your literary contributions.

It is not the object to gratuitously demean Gettysburg's facilities, but the term I used to describe does clarify effectively that they function indistinguishably from, and rely upon the same transactional premises as any cheap and private tourist-trap.

The real & principle differences being that the Gettysburg operation is expensive & government-run.

... And my real point is, it would behoove the authorities at Gettysburg and enhance their prospect of success in their endeavor, if they evaluated their efforts & projects as part of the tourist industry. They are: and if they looked at it that way they could save themselves at lot of trouble, and us a lot of money.

Once they set up the museum etc., to recover investment and provide upkeep-costs, they're shooting for a business-model. A tourist-based business-model. Up & down the road, such enterprises are known as tourist-traps.

Generically, I am actually in favor of fees at National Parks.

Nothing in life is truly free. Someone has to pay. It's either us, the national park enthusiasts and occasional tourists, who pay through fees, or it's the generic taxpayers.

If you believe the general public is becoming disinterested in the parks, it will soon become true (if it has not already become true) that Congress and the Executive Branch has become disinterested in the parks.

If the parks are to survive, which I absolutely hope will be the case, we are going to have to suck it up and pay the fees.

Let's do some comparative mathematics: I recently paid $40 to rent a kayak and paddle around Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. It lasted about three hours, and I have to admit, I loved it. This particular commercial enterprise did have attractive family pricing, I believe the family of four paid about $75 for the same trip. It included some rudimentary instruction (which I didn't need) and the use of their equipment (which I did), plus a guide (which, never having been there before, I felt I wanted).

So, compare that to the $35 for a four-hour ranger-led tour at Big Bend. Roughly equivalent, I would say, although I've never taken that particular tour.

Now, if you want to discuss specifics, I don't know if a $12 entry fee to the Springfield Armory is a good deal or not, because I've never been there. So, undoubtedly, some fees are way off-market (i.e. unfairly priced for the value you receive), but generically, fees are reasonable (and necessary, based on lack of government support for the parks).

Everybody seems to want a free ride. But the free ride is a myth.


My travels through the National Park System:

Point made, Barky. But don't you run the risk of alienating more potential park advocates by constantly raising the fees to this truly American attraction?

The parks I don't think should be equated with a commercial business (and that's what seems to be happening at Gettysburg and elsewhere in the system). Once that's done, they head down the elitist highway.

I'd like to think national parks exist to enrich every one of us through the nature, history, and culture they conserve/preserve and explain. We the people should have the desire and feel the obligation to support the National Park System for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay for a tour or simply to drive through the entrance gate. And that needs to be impressed on Congress and the next administration.

Now, I realize that's a very idealistic view that likely will be criticized in some sectors. But I think the day the national parks become off-limits to anyone who wishes to enter them will be a sad day indeed.

If these are to be self-supporting concerns, then turn them over to the highest bidder now. If they're not, if they truly are to be conserved for the enjoyment of future generations, then I'd suggest superintendents start shutting down facilities they can't afford. That'd drive a message to Congress.

I agree with Ted that park service facilities are part and parcel of the tourist trap cycle whether or not the agency would deign to accept that description. I worked at a very busy visitor center for a lot of years and my fellow rangers and I were all keenly aware that our role was mostly to keep the masses moving by pointing out where the rest rooms were, how far it was to the next popular "attraction", where to find motel rooms and whether decent food could be obtained at moderate prices.

We had a piece of paper on a clipboard that was used to record actual inquiries about "natural history". It was a rare occurrence and we were always excited when someone would approach the desk and inquire about geology or local fauna & flora.

Our managers were oblivious to the true functions our visitor center served and did not bother to train us in the actual questions that we routinely answered. When I suggested that we devote some time in seasonal training to all of the tourism related questions we daily received I was bluntly told that we "were not Disney employees" and this was not in the "official" scope of knowledge or skills required for the job. Their distance from the on the ground reality of what we did and how the VC actually functioned was truly amazing.

Proclaiming that you're NOT in the tourist business seems to be a standard operating procedure of most NPS managers. They're much more comfortable with lofty agency-speak concerning "engaging people in building enduring connections with America’s special places" or becoming the nation's environmental educator without ever asking the public if that is what it expects or even wants.

I remember one day a lady approached the desk to pay for some books and we pointed her towards the natural history association cashier across the room. She took a good long look at our uniforms and said, "oh I see, you're just rangers". Indeed.

You pay to ride the buses in Denali, which is the only way to access the park after the 15 mile mark. You pay to access the Channel Islands by boat, or Kenai Fjords by boat, again the only access to most parts of the park. You pay for the tours at Mesa Verde to see most of the cliff dwellings, no tour, no access. We can't pretend that this Gettysburg thing is something new.

And this is an exemplary point of why the entire NPS system should be removed from federal "management". If each individual unit is to function as a self-supporting entity, requiring each to be fiscally responsible (solvent) and able to independently support the activities, personnel and facilities within their boundaries, fees are not only mandatory, they are going to skyrocket with the ebb and flow of the fickle tourism industry, particularly across the spectrum of those more remote and lesser-traversed units. A sound financial management plan has yet to be enacted realizing and accounting for the depth and breadth of the system as a whole, as it appears that that these updating, historical restoration or historically "significant" projects always manage to catch the service by surprise, while the coffers have been prematurely emptied on other more immediate concerns.

I support your sentiments, in general, Kurt. However you choose to view it though, some manner of "commercialism" is going to the be most immediate and certain salvation of the parks as a whole, and a naive belief in the political system riding in on a white horse at the 11th hour is not a practical approach. A quick review of the recent history of Washington's voting record, which is all that really matters, shows a critical lack of bi-partisan support with the pen, only with the mouth. This current administration, hell, the past 50 years of administrations have all had more than ample opportunity to salvage the network, but when push came to shove they ALL showed their true lobbyist-backed colors and refused to support the wishes of their constituents. Hence the situation as it exists today, which cannot be allowed to continue into the future without a definitive endpoint. Supporting the independent operation of the entire service as a for-profit entity with strict limitations (or caps if you prefer) on overall margins, monies that are guaranteed to be returned to the operating budget of the overall system, supported equally be ALL Americans such that none would bear an unreasonable financial burden is the most sensible way to attack the issues as they are currently constructed. As it stands today, there is too much variability in annual allocation of funds from the "me first" mind-set that is our federal government. I, for one, am tired of waiting for the moment when we can "afford" to spend monies internally. I cannot accept that we are unable to allocate the proper level of funding for our own benefit when we are perfectly willing to pee away billions of dollars in the international communities of people who could care less if we live or die. I'm quite aware, as many of you should be, that thousands of my countrymen died in SE Asia, fighting to "maintain our national security and preserve democracy" in a conflict that cost this country more money that will be allocated to the NPS over the next 100 years, and for what? Over 50,000 dead, ten times as many mentally scarred for life, billions and billions of US dollars frittered away, to what end? The country fell, "democracy" was laid to waste, the "evil Red empire" took over, and my national security to date hasn't been diminished ONE IOTA. The identical BS is currently being shoved down the public's throats in an attempt to mask Georgie-boys "gotta maintain the family honor" war, and people are still dumb enough to believe the rhetoric and pandering that is directed at them from their alleged representation in Washington? How much faith in this flawed political system and how much patience is it going to take before people see the system for what it is.......a self-serving, elitist group concerned with the business of personal next-feathering, power mongering and maintaining the separation of classes within the citizens of our nation. You express a fear of the NPS becoming a country club but I submit to you sir, the group in control of the salvation which you seek is currently structured as just such the organization you fear the parks will become. I submit that the sooner we take control of programs that the incompetents in Washington have demonstrated an unwillingness and inability to manage, the better off we'll all be, including the geography that encompasses the area "from sea to shining sea".

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