The concept of National Parks is a unique American invention. Only in America could the idea hatch and flourish that certain natural treasures should be reserved in trust for all The People to enjoy.
We have a shared historical narrative of families packing up the station wagon with kids and camping supplies and hitting the road to experience the Parks. That ideal is still alive and well, at least for the present. In a day where the cost of many family vacation destinations have become out of reach for many families, the Parks have offered fantastic vacation experiences for families on a budget. A typical family just has to pay for the fuel it takes to get there – and then, for just a few dollars more, they can get into the magnificent Parks and campgrounds to experience natural beauty at its most extravagant. It’s not just for rich folks. National Parks have always been an opulent vacation experience available even to low wage earners. And that is how it should be!
But those golden days may be coming to an end. Last week, the National Park Service (NPS) floated the idea of a dramatic fee increase at its most iconic Parks. During the busiest five months of the year, entrance fees at 17 of the Parks would more than double to $70 per vehicle. The Parks targeted include nearby favorites like Arches, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Zion.
Of course, this change is not likely to bother higher income Park visitors. They won’t feel the pinch. And it certainly won’t deter foreign visitors from Asia and Europe from continuing to flood into the National Parks. But it will probably tend to keep low- to middle-income families away from the Parks. Those folks who have always been able to depend on National Parks for an affordable family destination will have to dig deep or else, more likely, just stay home. That would be a shame! And it would be contrary to the very founding principles of the Parks.
We are told that there is an urgent need for this increase. Of course there is! With federal agencies the budget is always in dire straits. NPS officials claim that the increases are needed to fund long-neglected infrastructure and maintenance projects at the Parks. The peak season increase is expected to add about $68 million per year in revenue. That seems like a lot to us average folks, but in the overall $3.2 billion NPS budget it doesn’t amount to very much at all.
Couldn’t the NPS raise that little bit of money without pricing middle class Americans out? Sure! It could painlessly be done by opening certain areas to more free market enterprise. Here is just one example that is close to home. Re-opening the Stewart’s Point area to long-term lease agreements for the development of privately-owned vacation homes could easily bring in $68 million all by itself. And if it was done in a savvy and sensitive way, it would not harm any delicate environment, spoil any natural treasure, or detract from the experience of any other Park visitor. Most of all, it would be funded by those who are willing and able to pay; rather than by strapping the budgetary burden onto the nation’s lowest earning families.
If there is one, there must be scores of similar projects just waiting in the wings at the 417 National Parks in the NPS system. Any of them could bring in untold revenues from private enterprise all while remaining sensitive to National Park founding values. With the NPS in charge of some of the most precious real estate on the continent, the increases to revenue certainly need not be limited to just a measly $68 million.
Listening to NPS officials, any added revenue should be welcome in helping to fund the long-neglected Park improvements. In fact, according to NPS budget documents the backlog on system-wide deferred maintenance projects adds up to more than $11.3 billion. In view of that staggering number, the little $68 million that the NPS hopes to squeeze from middle class American families is just a tiny drop in the ocean; mere pennies. But it is much more than pennies to all the American families who struggle every day just to make ends meet. To many the fee increase means a lock at the gate to The People’s Parks.
The NPS is accepting public comment on the proposed fee increases between now and November 23. Comments can be submitted online at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?documentID=83652.