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Reader Participation Day: How Would You Structure User Fees For The National Parks?

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Should there be a fee to drive the 469-mile-long Blue Ridge Parkway?NPS

Imagine, for a moment, that you're in charge of setting fees for the National Park System. What would you charge for, and how much would you charge? Or would you charge anything at all?

Congress hasn't shown any great inclination to examine the fee system, other than to make some minor tweaks in a bid to generate more revenues for the parks. While debating the existing fees, and whether Congress is looking to fees to help fund the National Park Service could go on and on, for today's question let's avoid those debates and get creative in crafting a reasonable fee schedule for the parks. With that said, here are some things to consider in devising your fee schedule:

* Should there be entrance fees to national parks? If so, should each of the 401 units of the park system charge a fee?

* Is $80 a reasonable price for the annual America the Beautiful Pass that gets you into every park in the system that charges an entrance fee?

* Entrance fees vary quite a bit among the national parks. For example, Yellowstone National Park charges $25 for entrance for a seven-day period, Yosemite National Park charges $20 for seven days, Grand Canyon National Park charges $25 for seven days, Shenandoah National Park has a sliding scale depending on time of year that ranges from $10-$15, and Acadia National Park charges $20 for seven days. Should there be a consistent entrance fee charged across-the-board, and if so, how much should it be?

* Should the $10 Senior Pass, which you can purchase once you hit 62 and is good for the rest of your life, remain a flat $10? Should it be a one-time fee, or annual fee?

* Should there be a discounted annual pass for park travelers aged 18-24?

* Should there be an international pass for travelers coming from abroad to spend a few weeks exploring the National Park System?

* Since Great Smoky Mountains National Park can't charge an entrance fee for traffic on the Newfound Gap Road, should there be a fee to travel the 11-mile-loop road through Cades Cove? What about the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Natchez Trace Parkway, which also don't charge entrance fees to travel their bucolic landscapes.

* Should backcountry travelers have to pay a daily fee, or a permit fee, or both? If so, how much? Should the fees have a cap? Should those fees be uniform across the park system.

* Should horseback travelers pay the same amount as backpackers/hikers?

* Should off-road vehicles that head to places such as Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, and Padre Island national seashores have to charge fees above park entrance fees, and if so, should those fees be uniform across the system?

Those are just some of the issues that should be dissected; there no doubt are others you can think of. So have at it, travelers, how would you create a fee schedule for the parks?


Well this is a broad question.  But I think all fees should be eliminated because we already pay taxes for the use of this public land.  And the NPS has lost the credibilty with constant manipulation of their arbitrary fee systems and rampant abuse of FLREA interpretation.  The budget of the NPS has increased while usership is decreasing.  Does that justify fees or does it show the obvious.  Fees decrease access to and public use of public lands.  In the Smokies their backcountry fee decreased backcountry camping by 25 percent the first year. Entities that make a financial gain for use of public lands like photographers, guide services and concessionaires should pay and in some cases do.  But take Mt. Leconte lodge in the Smokies, for instance.  They charge an exhorbitant rate to stay in the only "in park" lodging/dining concession.  In one year they pulled in 1.8 million dollars and paid a paltry $200,000 to the NPS.  And they seem to get their concession contract renewed year after year.   It highlights the cultural problem of the NPS.  The organic act is a joke to them.  It is the wallet act that they follow.  Jarvis NPS serves the chambers of commerce and not the public.  Public input is wholescale ignored with regard to all activites in the system.   350$ to climb Denali?   Really?  To climb a mountain we get double taxed again?  Where and when does this insanity end?   Probably never.

The NPS staff has the worst case of entitlement mentality I have ever seen.  They expect us to pay them and then pay them some more then come on these forums and denigrate anyone who objects to paying them more, all while probably receiving a pension that most Americans will never see.  Enough is enough with the nickle and dime fees.  Manage your budgets or cut staff and reduce services.  We can live without a visitor center, shooting range or new fleet of SUV's doing DUI patrol in the frontcountry.

I’ll start by saying I think the National Parks are one of the best values around.  I actually feel good handing over my entrance fee when entering one of the parks.  That is not to say I don’t think there is room for improvement (I will limit my comments to just the parks.  Monuments, seashores etc. I would handle somewhat differently). 

I think $25 for a seven day pass per vehicle is a bargain but should a single person wishing to enter the park pay the same as a car full of 6 adults or a family?  I would charge a fee for each adult entering the park rather than a vehicle fee and perhaps a small fee for each child.  A $10 lifetime senior pass is ridiculous to me.   I would charge seniors the same as every other adult.  I would not give special treatment to any group based on age (children being the exception). I would definitely charge an entrance fee to all of the parks and yes I would make them all the same (including the Smokies).

In general I am a fan of user fees over taxes where practical but I wouldn’t get too carried away. I think the current system has it about right. Added fees for horse use, backcountry camping, a boat ride, climbing etc. are fine and make sense to me.  As best I could I would base the fees on actual costs so that those activities were self-supporting.    

There are two areas I see room for improvement, concessions and lodging.  In my experience both of these seem overpriced. I don’t think lodging or food inside a park should cost significantly more than outside the park and both should be kept affordable. At many parks it is now out of reach of many Americans. I don’t see a place for $400 per night accommodations or gourmet meals in our parks any more than I think everyone should be forced to camp or pack a lunch. The fact that they can charge this much does not in my opinion mean they should.

Face it the Feds are broke and that is only going to get worse.  The National Parks are way to valuable to let go into decline and users fees are the only viable, reliable funding source available.  Current fees are woefully inadequate and rediculously low.  The Grand Canyon is looking at a $150 million replacement of the water line that supports the heavily visited South Rim.  That exceeds the capital budget of the entire NPS.

Thoughts on specific fees:

Entrance fees - Six Flags tickets currently run about $60 PER DAY PER adult and $40 PER DAY PER child.  The Grand Canyon is $25 per vehicle for up to seven days.  A serious imbalance. Entry fees should be raised at least four fold and reduced to three days.  Passes should be good within that time period at other Parks, i.e. your Grand Canyon Park will get you into Zion and/or Bryce.  The argument against the entry fees is access, but when you look at the cost of taking a family of four from the midwest to the Grand Canyon the entry fee  is a trivial part of the cost, even at the proposed levels.  Gas, food and lodging costs for a family are several times what the entry fee amounts to.  In general a reduction in attendance at most parks would be a good thing.  Most are being degraded by over use.

Senior Pass - I have one, love it, but it is ridiculously cheap.  Senior discounts are typically 10 - 20%.  The Senior Pass should be in line with that. The pass can remain a forever pass, just reduce the benefit to a percentage discount..

Military Service - Every member of the armed services should receive a free pass into all parks good for life.

Special User Fees - Horses, pack animals, ATV's and other ORV's should pay an additional fee to cover the administrative, management, and other costs of their activities.  Fee should be based on a fair share of these costs.


The America the Beautiful pass is great value, I would happily pay more - say 100 or 120 $ - for it. Coming from Europe I appreciate that non-US visitors can always purchase the pass as well.

What's the sense behind the senior pass reduction anyway? These folks are usually quite wealthy AND have a lot of time to spend in parks. They should pay the same price as others.

I also don't understand the free pass for Military personnel. They should pay, too. 

Just a dream: a hefty extra charge for drivers of very loud, large and otherwise disturbing vehicles (motorbikes, massive RVs). 

I think that someone asking for no fees to then call the NPS "the worst case of entitlement mentality I have ever seen" is someone living a life of irony.

I knew this fee talk would bring the NPS employees out of the woodwork and from under logs.   .  Cutting staff is what the NPS needs to be doing.  When I hear that they hire a backcountry specialist and all these other needless positions within the agency who can do nothing better than come up with ideas to fund their positions and pay for their retirement then the time has come for this conversation.

Why is it that an agency that has had a steady increase in funds for years can poor mouth and denigrate any one who questions their all knowing fee authority?   Some folks need to get off our government computers and get back to work serving the public instead of justifying their ballooning ranks.


Folks, as noted in the article above, " for today's question let's avoid those debates and get creative in crafting a reasonable fee schedule for the parks." Let's stay focused on the specific topic, please.

NPT Editors,

With all due respect, the slant of this article implies that there is a general consensus that people agree there needs to be additional fees within the NPS.  I find it difficult to believe that is the case.  By disallowing conversations that argue the opposite are you not, in essence, doing that of which the NPS itself stands accused ?  Is there data to imply that the general public thinks fees are a favorable option?  There are many organized groups that are on the other side of this thing.

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