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Traveler's View: Congress, National Park Service Need To Restructure Fees For Centennial Celebration


"There is nothing so American as our National Parks... the fundamental idea behind the parks... is that the country belongs to the People." - Franklin D. Roosevelt

"It is the will of the nation as embodied in the act of Congress [in setting aside the Yosemite government reservation in 1864] that this scenery shall never be private property, but that like certain defensive points upon our coast it shall be solely for public purposes." -- Frederick Law Olmsted.

"The primary duty of the National Park Service is to protect the national parks and national monuments under its jurisdiction and keep them as nearly in their natural state as this can be done in view of the fact that access to them must be provided in order that they may be used and enjoyed. All other activities of the bureau must be secondary (but not incidental) to this fundamental function relating to care and protection of all areas subject to its control." -- Stephen Mather.

"Montani Semper Liberi"

It's a simple motto, "Mountaineers Are Always Free," that the state of West Virginia adopted in 1872. It's a theme Congress and the National Park Service should aspire to as the agency nears its centennial in 2016.

Simply put, the Park Service's fee system across the 398 units is miserably inconsistent. Part of the reason for that was the great disservice Congress did the public when it passed the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act in 2004 and told the Park Service to look for ways to make money off visitors.

Don't misunderstand. Fees can play a vital role in the National Park System. For many parks, dollars generated from entrance fees, tours of centuries-old cliff dwellings, and camping enable managers to cover gaps -- ever-growing gaps -- in congressional appropriations.

But as park managers reach for fees to cover those gaps, they threaten to push visitors away as they create startling inequities. And, according to the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, fees have an adverse impact on congressional funding; as fees have sprouted and gone up, federal appropriations have declined. Another view would suggest that as congressional funding has gone down, park managers have looked to fees to make up some of the shortage. Whichever the case, there's a lack of consistency when it comes to fees in the national parks.

* When you are charged a nightly fee for walking off into the woods and sleeping on the bare ground of Great Smoky Mountains National Park while motorists in their motorhomes and $50,000 SUVs can idle in line for free as they slowly negotiate the 11-mile loop of Cades Cove, it begs that officials reconsider their approach to fees.

In the Smokies, a wonderous mountain park in the Appalachian Range of Tennessee and North Carolina, there are more than 800 miles of trail to wander. This year park officials, citing a need for a better campsite reservation system and backcountry patrols, instituted a first-ever backcountry fee of $4 per person per night, capped at $20 per trip.

And yet, none of the 650,180 vehicles -- a number that surpassed the 2012 annual visitation of Theodore Roosevelt, Saguaro, Mammoth Cave, Mesa Verde, Canyonlands, and that of 265 other units of the National Park System, and which was more than 8.5 times greater than the number who walked into and camped in the Smokies' backcountry -- that circled Cades Cove last year was charged a fee.

Now, because the park doesn't charge an entrance fee (a point Park Service officials say the state of Tennessee exacted in return for donating land for the park), the park's budget must swallow any maintenance costs associated with those 650,180 vehicles that circled Cades Cove. Last year that dollar figure was $140,092; it covered road maintenance, custodial services for the Cable Mill/Abrams Falls Trail Head Comfort Station Maintenance, Cable Mill Grounds Maintenance, Water System Operations, and Wastewater System Operations.

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Why does the Park Service charge for this experience (Tiger Key, Everglades National Park, NPS photo)....

* When Yellowstone National Park budgets $125,000 per winter, or roughly $1,250 per person to keep Sylvan Pass safely open while that person pays just $20 to enter the park via a snowmobile or snowcoach, the need for either charging hundreds of dollars more for winter access through the East Entrance or shutting down the pass is obvious.

Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk says his average per person cost in winter to operate the park for visitors is $60. To get the East Entrance costs down to that level, over-snow traffic would have to increase more than 20 times, to 2,083 visitors per winter.

Now, not only is that $125,000 being budgeted for only about 100 visitors, but it pays for artillery rounds to be lobbed high onto the mountain flanks framing the pass to knock down avalanches. Can you name another park that has a bombing range?

* When Everglades National Park officials propose to charge a backcountry paddler or hiker four times what it costs a motorist and everyone in their rig to drive into the park day after day after day for a week, a top-to-bottom review of fees in the park is needed.

Park officials, who gave the public just 10 days this month to comment on the higher backcountry fees, justify boosting the backcountry permit fee from $10 to $12, and the per night user fee from $2 to $5, in part by saying their fees are below those charged on lands outside the national park. Now, they also note that it costs nearly $90,000 a year simply to process backcountry permits, and there are more costs for backcountry maintenance, law enforcement presence, and search-and-rescue. Permit fees in 2012, meanwhile, generated $48,000.

No proposals were made to increase the park's daily $10 entrance fee at the Homestead Entrance (which hasn't been increased since 1997), a fee good for a seven-day stay in Everglades National Park, or the $200 fee for commercial bus tours with more than 26 people, or for launching a boat ($5 for motorboat, $3 for canoe/kayak).

When a park counts 1.1 million visits in a year, as Everglades did in 2012, and fewer than 8,500 of those visitors went into the backcountry for an overnight, it would seem that bumping the entrance fee up $5 a car would provide more than enough revenues for both the backcountry and some front-country projects. And that $15 fee would at the same time still fall below the $25 per car charged at Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, and the $20 at Yosemite and Acadia, just to name four "more expensive" parks to enter.

There are more inequities in the Park Service's fee programs if you look around.

Two-hundred-and-sixty-five units of the 398-unit system don't charge any entrance fee. If you travel frequently to those parks that do charge fees, you can lessen the cost by buying an $80 America the Beautiful Pass that gets you into as many parks as many times as you want during a 12-month period. But that $80 fee applies to college students, who might be jobless and watching the balance on their student loans steadily grow, as well as struggling young couples and most everyone else up to age 62, when the fee plummets to just $10 fee for a lifetime pass even if you tour the parks in a $300,000 motorhome. And that pass also could earn you discounts of up to 50 percent on things like campground fees.

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...but not for contributing to maintain the road through Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park? NPS photo.

Now, there are economic, health, and philosophical reasons to seriously reorder the park system's fee programs.

Economically, fees potentially stand as a barrier to some who might otherwise plan a national park vacation. Those barriers cost the Park Service in terms of lost opportunities to connect Americans not only with the incredible vistas, experiences, and history found within the National Park System, but with healthier lifestyles, no small matter in a country where more than one-third of adults and approximately 17 percent of kids age 2 to 19 are obese.

Philosophically, the national parks supposedly are held in trust by Congress for the American people, who pay for them through their taxes. Yet the current fee system, especially entrance fees, is akin to having to pay a fee every time you want to enter your own home.

Those fees, both entrance and for camping, boating, scaling Half Dome, exploring cliff dwellings, climbing up the spiraling stairs of lighthouses, in many if not all cases can be traced back to Congress's passage of FLREA, (which, by the way, is up for renewal, but that's another story).

And the Park Service's headquarters compounds the problem by not dictating any uniformity in those fees. Why does it cost $4 per per person per night in the Smokies to backpack, $5 per person in Everglades, and a flat $25 for a group of friends in Yellowstone?  Why does it cost you $25 to drive through one of Yellowstone's entrance gates, yet just $10 to enter Everglades?

In the end, if there must be fees, put some equity into them. Don't charge someone who walks with a pack on their back or paddles a canoe or kayak and sleeps under the stars more than someone who drives into a park. Sure, backcountry search-and-rescue missions can be expensive (though part of the cost is covered by the NPS's overall budget, not saddled entirely on an individual park), but so, too, are road repairs, maintaining front-country restrooms, handing out speeding tickets, and responding to vehicle accidents.

In fact, wipe out backcountry fees across the system and instead encourage The North Face, REI, or perhaps the entire Outdoor Industry Association to donate to cover whatever needs exist for backcountry fees across the entire park system. Or add $1 to entrance fees system-wide to fund a program for both backcountry search-and-rescue and front-country emergency response. 

Even entrance fees should be questioned by the Park Service. Rejuvenation, inspiration, and creativity spring from the mountains and forests and lakes and rivers and brooks and passes and meadows and valleys and hardwood hammocks. We can price these settings in terms of the economic draw that gateway communities realize from visitors drawn to these places, but we shouldn't tax visitors again and again and again to explore and enjoy these settings.

How might you replace lost entrance fee revenues, which generate somewhere north of $200 million a year for the Park Service? Better accounting and oversight of government is one place to start in light of recent news that the government somehow lost $8 billion to fraud, waste and abuse in trying to rebuild Iraq, that a contractor involved in building a nuclear waste processing plant billed the government $2 million for overtime it didn't perform, and that federal agencies have turned a blind eye to recommendations from their own Inspector generals that could save upwards of $67 billion.

In other words, the country can afford to do away park entrance fees if it was better at managing money.

Park Service officials have voiced concerns about connecting younger generations and more diverse demographic and racial groups with the parks, and yet in iconic places like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Shenandoah, Acadia, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, and 127 other parks those visitors are asked to dip into their pockets before entering and making that connection.

Some would have the Park Service sap park visitors even more for enjoying these landscapes, finding rejuvenation, and, hopefully, becoming advocates and even stewards for the national parks. The American Recreation Coalition would, among other things, have the Park Service increase park entrance fees and turn over campgrounds to concessionaires so they might "introduce dynamic pricing and start marketing these campgrounds." And ARC's revenue-generating ideas don't stop there.

The Park Service shouldn't go there. National parks are our national heritage and inheritance and held in trust for us by Congress. They are not the place to build a paywall, user-fee by user-fee.

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A great--and timely--piece. Just forwarded it.

In line with your hike/tent v. RV comparison, my biggest simple change would be the fee structure per motor vehicle v. per bicycle. To take CABR as an example, the fees are $5 per private motor vehicle no matter how many people, but $3 per bicycle, so 2 people riding bikes to the park pay more at the entrance station than if they drove, even though they don't require parking spaces and have less impact on air quality. Fees can (and I think, should) encourage cycling to (and in) many urban parks, but also those with gateway communities & congested areas.

My sentiments exactly Kurt. It is outrageous to me that backcountry users are charged exhorbitant fees while those entering through the gate in a car are charged, by comparison, virtually nothing. At Grand Canyon, 10 people doing a 15 day river trip would cost $1000 in NPS permit fees (more still for the Hualapai take out and the entry into Glen Canyon at Lees Ferry) while the same group in two cars could stay on the south or north rims for two weeks for $100 (free if you have a couple of America the Beutiful passes) taking advantage of all the ranger talks, movies, restrooms, paved trails etc. According to FLREA fees levied are supposed to be commensurate with the services/facilites/equipment used but at Grand Canyon, anyway, this concept is reversed.

A-men. In spades. I do not have words strong enough to state my agreement with this entire post.

I don't really have anything to add to it, but this article says exactly how I've felt about the inequity of fees in the national parks ever since the first time I visited the Great Smokies (which were a vast disappointment to me, anyway, but that's another story).

Yes, indeed.


This is the best article I have read regarding the feeascos created by the NPS. You and this magazine are to be commended for holding the NPS to task and demanding equity from the NPS. The Smokies debacle has been and continues to degenerate at every foul smelling turn with every layer of the onion exposing some other justification for the sole purpose of getting their foot in the door with a backcountry fee. Of course the NPS and their leadership are above "responding" to the needs of ordinary citizens. It is only legal and political pressure that causes them to do anything.

I hope that the incoming DOI Secretary sees this and responds to the citizens instead of the "good ole boys" that will try to bend her hear in the direction of continuing fees. Thank you for doing a service for the American public. A service that the "Service" does not.

Outstanding column, Kurt. I hope many eyes see this and realize how derelict our federal government has become in direct proportion to the preponderance of fees (truly double and triple taxes). The Administrators in our federal agencies seem to often think of the lands they oversee not as ours, but as theirs which they then "sell" to us.

The following sums up the direction we've been heading for some time now. They are the words of the US Forest Service's first ever Chief Operating Officer, Francis Pandolfi, in 1999 after coming to the Forest Service in 1997 directly from the American Recreation Coalition where he had served as Chairman of their Recreation Roundtable:

"Have we fully explored our gold mine of recreational opportunities in this country and managed it as if it were consumer product brands? How could it be done? As federal agencies and others transition from providing outdoor recreation at no cost to the consumer to charging for access and services, we can expect to see many changes in the way we operate. Selling a product, even to an eager customer, is very different from giving it away."

Such is frequently the mindset when it comes to "our public lands." In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Superintendent Dale Ditmanson, when discussing his initial desire to outsource his new unneeded and overwhelmingly unpopular backcountry reservation system to, espoused the "one-stop-shopping" benefit. And throughout his sales pitch over the last 18 months those who live around the Park – where families were forced to surrender their homes and the only life they had ever known – have been repeatedly referred to not as descendents, not as tax-paying owners, not even as visitors, but as “customers.” Of course, he lumped all other Americans in that category as well.

Thanks again for a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. 


Regarding Everglades NP and its outrageous 10 day period for accepting public comments: for at least 4 days, beginning no later than last Friday and lasting through today (Monday) the primary email link ( [color=#0000ff][email protected][/color] ) resulted in returned “undeliverable” submissions. They were notified of this on Friday (and most likely it has been the case since the public comment period opened on Tuesday 3/5) yet as of 2 minutes ago comments were still being rejected (about a 27 minute wait for it to kick back). How’s that for being in tune with the American public? It’s all a sham anyway, but now they’re so arrogant they flaunt it, providing no details on why the increase is necessary or what it will supposedly fund. They’re above answering to the public or even caring enough to allow dissatisfied owners the outlet to voice their disapproval before the foregone dismissal or deletion of those comments.

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