The National Park Service wants to raise peak-season entrance fees at 17 of its busiest national parks starting in 2018. According to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who announced the proposal on Tuesday, the price hikes are needed to help improve aging infrastructure and facilities that are already overburdened by record numbers of visitors. But many environmental groups oppose the measure, which they think would unfairly burden those unable to afford the steep fees—thus limiting public access to the national treasures.
During each of the selected parks’ five busiest months, entrance fees would increase to $70 per vehicle, $50 per motorcycle, and $30 per person. The parks, which are located mostly in the West, include icons such as Grand Canyon National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Yosemite National Park. For places like Rocky Mountain National Park this would mean from June through October, $20 day passes would jump 250 percent in price to $70.
“The infrastructure of our national parks is aging and in need of renovation and restoration,” said Zinke. “Targeted fee increases at some of our most-visited parks will help ensure that they are protected and preserved in perpetuity and that visitors enjoy a world-class experience that mirrors the amazing destinations they are visiting.”
Environmental groups see it as somewhat hypocritical for Zinke to be talking about preserving parks in perpetuity while he pursues an aggressive drilling and mining plan on public lands across the country. They are also put off by his intention to slash NPS’ budget by 12% and cut at least 4,000 jobs, along with his efforts to actually shrink a number of large and popular national monuments, such as Bears Ears National Monument, which function a lot like national parks.
“We need to be looking for ways to expand outdoor opportunities for everyone,” said Lena Moffitt, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign, in a statement. “Instead Zinke is opening doors for drilling and mining at the expense of everyone else and the future of our wild places.”
It’s no secret that the NPS has a big maintenance problem. The agency claims to need around $12 billion to address all the existing issues. However, as a Center for American Progress report on the subject pointed out earlier this year, the challenge is far from evenly distributed across parks. According to the February report, How Trump Could Privatize America’s National Parks, nearly half of NPS’ list of maintenance needs are not for bathrooms, hiking trails or campgrounds, i.e. “infrastructure that helps visitors explore their national parks,” but are instead for paved roads. And just four roads—the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Natchez Trace Parkway, and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway—are responsible for roughly 10 percent of the entire maintenance backlog.
The report also notes that the backlog includes at least $389 million-worth of projects at for-profit concession-operated facilities within the parks—such as hotels, gift shops, and restaurants—that are required to pay their own maintenance costs.
The proposed fees would grow NPS’ revenue by about $70 million a year, about a third of an increase from the $200 million collected in 2016 and a far cry from the billions needed. According to federal law, 80 percent of park fees must remain in the park where they are collected, so the risk of all the money being spent on roads in other parks is at least off the table.
Nicole Gentile, Deputy Director of Public Lands at CAP and co-author of the report, told Earther that while entry fees “should be revisited from time to time...balancing the maintenance backlog on the backs of American families is a short-sighted solution.”
Gentile said the backlog could be addressed effectively with targeted infusions of cash to some of the most important projects, more assistance from private concessions and transportation, and by “funding our parks at the level they deserve, rather than slashing budgets.”
“Secretary Zinke should start by standing up for a serious budget for the National Park Service,” said Gentile. “It’s also important to weigh what parks mean to Americans—they celebrate our history as a nation, provide opportunities for an affordable and uniquely American family vacation, drive local economies, and protect important wildlife habitat.”
The National Park Service celebrated its 100th anniversary last year amidst a run of increasingly busy seasons. In 2015, visitation surpassed 300 million for the first time, and it grew by another 31 million in 2016. Overcrowding and overuse are real problems that will require creative and well-thought-out solutions that go beyond simple price gauging. Until a better approach emerges, long waits and overcrowded trails will continue to be both a blessing and a burden. Of course, Congress could also set aside more iconic lands to help alleviate the crowds, but I wouldn’t bet on it any time soon.
“We need more parks that tell the story of all Americans, more opportunities for recreation near population centers, and to stop threatening local communities with attacks—such as Zinke’s monuments review—that would erase public lands from the map,” said Gentile.
The 17 parks that could face higher entry fees are:
● Acadia National Park
● Arches National Park
● Bryce Canyon National Park
● Canyonlands National Park
● Denali National Park
● Glacier National Park
● Grand Canyon National Park
● Grand Teton National Park
● Joshua Tree National Park
● Mount Rainier National Park
● Rocky Mountain National Park
● Olympic National Park
● Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park
● Shenandoah National Park
● Yellowstone National Park
● Yosemite National Park
● Zion National Park