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UPDATED | Zinke: Fourth-Graders, Seniors, Disabled, And Veterans Prompting Higher Park Entrance Fees

Secretary Zinke testifying before Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Interior Secretary Zinke told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that too many free and discounted passes into the National Park System are part of the Park Service's funding problems.

Editor's note: This corrects that fourth-graders, not 4-year-olds, can get a free parks pass, and adds reaction to Secretary Zinke's comments from a military veteran.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says free or discounted passes given to senior citizens, active military, disabled, and even fourth-graders and their families are part of the reason for the National Park Service's funding problems.

During an at times contentious appearance before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the secretary, explaining why he's considering a surge pricing system for 17 national parks, said parks are losing too much money to those pass programs.

"I've spent a lot of time in a (park) kiosk, and it's amazing, in our parks, which the maintenance (backlog) as you know, we're far behind," the secretary told the committee Tuesday while explaining the Trump administration's FY2019 budget proposal for the Interior Department. "But when you give discounted or free passes to elderly, fourth-graders, veterans, disabled, and you do it by the carload, there's not a whole lot of people that actually pay at our front door.

"As well as you have a lot of foreign guests," he added. "We're looking at ways to make sure we have more revenue in the front door of our parks themselves. Because when you have a park like (Mount) Rainier, the money they receive coming in the front gate, I want to make sure more of it goes to that park superintendent so he has flexibility in how he spends it."

Under current pass programs, senior citizens 62 and older can purchase a lifetime pass to the parks for $80 (the fee had been $10 until it increased last year), fourth-grade students can receive a free pass through the Every Kid in a Park program started by the Obama administration, active military and their dependents gain free passes, and U.S. citizens who are permanently disabled receive free passes.

While Secretary Zinke said too much of entrance fee revenues go back to Washington, D.C., under current regulations 80 percent of the fees collected in a park stay there, while the other 20 percent is sent to Washington to be redistributed to other areas, including to parks that do not collect entrance fees.

He did acknowledge that park fees alone won't significantly address the park system's $11.7 billion maintenance backlog.

"But a lot of our parks have record visitation," he said. "We expect them to have record visitation again."

Under questioning from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, Secretary Zinke said he wasn't suggesting that the free entry given to military, seniors, and fourth-graders should be done away with.

"No, what I'm saying is this: We subsidize and we allow, by design, a lot of people to go through. If you're in a car and you have a veteran in the car, everyone, whether they're a veteran or not, is free in that car," said Secretary Zinke. "Same thing with disabled, same thing with elderly, on passes. Basically, one person with a pass, everyone in that car comes in for free. Whether or not that's correct, we're looking at it."

The secretary's comments drew criticism from an Army veteran who is a senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club's  Military Outdoors program.

“I’m a veteran who helps other veterans and their families get outdoors because our public lands can ease the transition from active duty to active citizenship, and are spaces to heal emotionally and physically," said Rob Vessels. "It’s insulting to have the Secretary of the Interior blame me and other veterans for the fact that he won’t fund our national parks properly. I served my country to help protect institutions like our national parks, and have dedicated my life to expanding access to the outdoors for all people. Secretary Zinke should learn to speak more respectfully about veterans before he uses us as a tool for his political agenda to shut working families out of our national parks.”

Secretary Zinke also told the committee that the $80 America the Beautiful parks pass, which allows holders to enter parks as many times as they want for a one-year period, is an incredible bargain, saying he took his family to a movie the other night and that the bill, which included popcorn, came to more than $80.

He said that his staff's review of park fee structures is designed to "make sure that revenue coming into the door of our principal parks is appropriate, making sure that we still have value. Because American parks belong to the public, they belong to all Americans, and everyone should have access."

"We definitely believe we should be increasing access, not disincentivizing it," responded Sen. Cantwell.

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Correction: it is actually 4th graders and not 4 year olds that get a free pass. I know families who used this incentive program. After speaking with these fourth graders it convinced me this was a great way for working families to visit the peoples national parks. Zinke et al always find scapegoats for the reasons that the national parks have a maintenance backlog. Zinke has a history of abusing government funds,  starting with his US Navy days. His goal is to privatize the parks wherever he can. He has his marching orders and he is trying to carry them out. 

When, and for how long, has he spent time in an entry kiosk?


And, just sayin', a $139,000 door would pay for a lot of disabled veterans' discount lost income.

Boy, that's embarrassing. Thanks for pointing that out Ridgerunner.

I have always thought that it was a good idea to ask people to pay something when they visit the parks. The increase to $80 is still a great deal. If other "free" programs were asked to pay a small fee, I believe it would be appropriate.

Right on Ridgerunner, thank you. Fee increases an issue. For example, in Yosemite, if fee raised to 70.00 for seven days, sounds like a deal. However, 80% of use is day use, 2-3 hours. Campground fees are escalating, 30.00 a night in Yosemite Valley, that is 100.00 just to camp one night, that is if you are lucky enough to get a campground reservation. I think that is to much. One of the issues with the fee demo program is that many areas depend on the this money source to run the park. In major parks, fee money far exceeds base congressional funding. Unforuanety, the idea of raising fees was to give parks a supplemental funding source, not an opportunity for congress not to properly fund them. I do agree that seniors should pay a little, a discounted daily or annual fee seems resonable. As a senior pushing 80 years, I have had free entry and exit for over 20 years now, On the other hand many seniors are on tight budgets, to some extent me included. As the years go by, pensions and social security, in many cases, do not keep up with costs. Complex issue, but the parks should remain afforable for all citizens. 

I think that Zinke should first be chastizing himself for not fighting for sufficient budget for the parks and wildlife preserves and BIA lands and all the other areas for which he is sworn to take care of.


I agree with others as above. I've got my certified old fart card in my pocket. I wouldn't paying a small token amount in addition to flashing the card and perhaps DOI should look at a more equitable "everyone in the car" factor. I am, however, particularly pissed at this $139,000-door man with a long history of squandering the taxpayers' money, picking out the "easy targets" to blame here. The man has no soul.

Give it a rest Rick.  Zinke knew nowthing about the doorS (set of three double doors) and the restoration is part of a project that began long before he was Secretary.  Just another one of your efforts to distort the facts to make baseless accusations.


"Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was unaware of the contract before reporters started asking about it, according to his spokeswoman, Heather Swift."

According to his spokeswoman.  Given the fact that this administration has proven to be terribly allergic to truth in so many other instances, this should probably be taken with a large bag of salt.  

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