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Traveler's View: Rethink National Park Pass Fees


The fee structure for the annual American the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Lands Recreation Passes needs to be revised.

Interior Department officials need to rethink the fees that are charged for annual park passes.

The current fee structure just doesn't make sense, and works at odds with the National Park Service's stated desire to see younger generations fall in love with the National Park System.

It was back in 2006 that the old $50 annual parks pass was phased out by the Bush administration in favor of the $80 America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Lands Recreation Pass. At the time, then-Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett called the pass "a cost-effective and easy option for those who plan to visit multiple federal recreation sites."

That might be so, but the rates for the passes need to be revised.

Why charge anyone who has reached 62 years old (or three years below the Internal Revenue Service's currently recognized retirement age) just $10 for a lifetime pass to all 394 units in the system, and at the same time charge someone just starting out their adult life $80 for the same pass with another significant difference: it expires 12 months later?

While we at the Traveler generally frown on park entrance fees, it's obvious that they're not going to go away anytime soon. But they could be made more equitable. Indeed, adjusting these fees could very possibly increase revenues for the National Park Service while possibly encouraging more young adults to visit the parks.

Let's look at some numbers.

In 2010, purchases of the annual $10 interagency senior pass raised $4,956,076, while sales of the annual $80 pass raised $20,327,810. Doubling the seniors' pass to $20 could turn that $4.9 million into $10 million. Do away with the "lifetime" duration of the pass and the numbers jump higher.

True, if you returned the cost of the annual parks pass back to $50, the annual revenue theoretically would fall to around $12.7 million. But that's not as significant as it might seem.

Using 2010's income figures, those changes -- upping the senior pass fee to $20 for a one-year pass and reducing the annual pass fee to $50 -- on the face of things would trim the Park Service's annual take to $22.7 million from $25.2 million. But if the senior pass were both increased to $20 and had to be renewed every year, the paper loss most likely would turn into a gain.

The guess here, too, is that a drop in the annual pass from $80 to $50 very likely would spur more annual pass sales, too, and so the chance of an overall decline in pass revenues would vanish.

If the National Park Service truly is concerned about declining park visitation and younger generations losing interest in the parks, charging those under 62 $80 for an annual pass is not the way to solve either of those concerns.

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I agree. When the pass was $50 I would buy it annually whether I used it enough to offset the cost or not (often it did not). Now I never purchase it becaus there is not an instance that I would even come close to attaining that goal and I vacation each year in a NPS site. I would purchase it again regularly if the fee were decreased.

Shall I lead off?
While I fundamentally differ with the NPT stance on entrance fees in general I was against the decision to remove the annual fee option from Day 1.  (As a reminder to you supporters of "open access", entrance fees are about as easy to circumvent as most other rules in and around the parks from years past such as designated campsite use, weapons, trail use protocol, general courtesy for fellow users and for the environment itself to name but a few.)  I make allowances for those who have attained Year 65....for all I care let 'em in free anywhere, anytime.  But with budget constraints being what they are any and all sources of funding should be scrutinized and the 25% increase (and related regulation changes) was simply uncalled for.  In many areas of the country visiting multiple sites within the typical vacation period of 7 days can be a logictical nightmare, at least for those of us who spend more than an hour or two per site, so if the original intent of eliminating the Annual was to swell the coffers through additional revenues "due" the system through these multiple site visit fees I seriously question the logic of the thought process that conceived that plan.  And with the current state of the national economy and related costs of travel the NPS would do itself well to immediately assemble some alternative packages to entice the public both for the current and the future good of the system's fiscal well-being. 
Speaking of things that could be changed, could you give me a captcha I have half a prayer of reading without feeling like I've been ingesting some wild peyote?  PLEASE???

Lone Hiker -- so it's the Peyote?  Dang.  And all this time I thought it was my eyes.

Just to the right of the Captcha box are three little emblems.  If you click the top one, it will bring up another set of letters.  Click it enough times and you'll be bound to finally find one you can read.

(I had to click only twice this time . . . )

Definitely.  Last autumn I went on a roadtrip that included several NPS units over the course of several weeks.   It was cheaper to buy individual passes everywhere I went.

Great article.  I actually don't mind the fees, but I agree with you on making them more equitable.

While I don't wholly disagree with your point, I'm not sure you've fully accounted for the effect of raising the price of the senior pass. If lowering the price of the regular pass will increase the number sold (and it should), then raising the price of the senior pass AND making it expire in a year will reduce the the number sold in any given year. Furthermore, a certain number of the 1 year senior passes would not be renewed year after year.

I also don't know that the fees currently charged are all that much of a hurdle for park visitors, young or old. Entrance fees of $2 or $3 person or even $25 a carload at the bigger parks pale in comparison to the cost of transportation, lodging, meals etc.  And $80 for a year's worth of visits isn't really very much. Disney World charges $80 a DAY per PERSON and they don't have any problem attacting young people. And Disney's annual pass runs $600. I know that's an apple/orange comparison but my point is that even at today's rates, the parks are a bargain.

Yes, I would prefer paying $50 vs $80 for a year's pass, or even have no fees at all. But the money is, after all, going to the NPS to help run the parks. So I feel I get my money's worth whether  I can avoid $80 worth on entrance fees or not.

I wrote a comment on this subject on 3-9-11, noting that Congress's need to provide money for bankers and bailouts leaves the NPS chronically underfunded. Interestingly, this was followed on 3-28 by an article about Congress slashing the NPS budget. Obviously, since the NPS can't make campaign contributions this is not a situation that will change any time soon. It seems to me that the only way to properly fund America's greatest attractions is to charge fees commensurate with places like Disneyworld, King's Island, Cedar Point and others. A few minutes online will demonstrate to anyone what an incredible bargain we're getting with the Parks. Much as I hate this idea, I have no doubt that the money would be well spent since the NPS seems to be one of the few government entities that is actually worth what we pay for it.

Thoughtful article. I have always supported reasonable entrance and camping fees to our parks. By reasonable I mean 15-20 dollars. I agree us seniors get a heck of deal, we could pay more as suggested by your analysis. We should lower fees for the annual pass, no question about it. The parks our part of the "commons", access should not be determined by ability to pay, at least in my own view of the issue. There is a disturbing tendency for our elected leaders to make up budget shortfalls primarily on the backs of the lower income groups, including young people just getting started in life, etc. Much of this problem could be solved by revising the current tax laws including the elimination of the President Bush tax cuts. I personally think the economic pie is being concentrated to an alarming extent. Statistics are always open to interpretation but, for example, in 1976 the lower 90% of the population owned half the wealth, by 1997 their share was down to 27%. In 2000, the top 1% of American households had financial wealth greater than that of the bottom 95% combined. In 1998 the net worth of just one Amercican, Mr. Bill Gates, at 45 billion, was greater than the bottom 45% percent of all American Households combined (stats from "Unequal Protection" by Thom Hartman).  Whatever the stats maybe, there is an alarming trend in the distribution of wealth and its not just an American phenomenon anymore. Our parks and public lands are a great gift, a real extension of the concept of the "commons" in its broadest sense. Please excuse the rant, but thank you "Traveler" for focusing on the issue.

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