Americans love their national parks. Last year, these lands attracted 331 million people — a record number and an increase of 7.7 percent over 2015. But that love is a mixed blessing for the parks.
Visitors expect to be provided with roads, bridges, trails, restrooms, campgrounds, water fountains and more. The more people come, the more it costs to keep up the infrastructure that facilitates enjoyment of these rare and precious places.
Unfortunately, the funds needed for these needs are not keeping pace with visitor traffic. The national parks have a backlog of more than $11 billion in deferred maintenance — things that need to be repaired, renovated or replaced.
With the federal budget running a $666 billion deficit in the fiscal year that just ended, the National Park Service is not about to get a huge infusion of money from the Treasury. So the Interior Department has proposed a more plausible source: higher fees for the people who use the parks.
The increase would apply at 17 of the most popular parks, including Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Shenandoah and Acadia, during peak months. Currently, a seven-day pass costs just $25 or $30 for a carload of parents and kids. Under this proposal, the fee would rise to $70 for each private vehicle, with each motorcycle charged $50 and pedestrians and cyclists $30 per person.
That $70 may sound steep, but for a family of four spending a week inside, it works out to $2.50 per person per day. A one-day ticket at the gate for Great America, by comparison, costs $54.99 for children and $74.99 for adults. And let’s not even talk about Walt Disney World.
For most people who travel to see Old Faithful or Half Dome, the additional cost would be a tiny part of their total outlay. Shawn Regan, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., has written, “Studies in Yellowstone and Yosemite show that entrance fees make up only 1.2 to 1.5 percent of visitors’ overall trip expenditures, with the vast majority going toward food, lodging, and travel.”
The higher prices wouldn’t apply in the off-season, which accounts for seven months of the year. In that way, they might have the bonus effect of thinning out peak-season mobs a bit. They wouldn’t apply to the 400 other national park sites, most of which charge nothing. Visitors would still be able to buy a pass that covers all the parks for a mere $80 a year.
The proposed change would yield $70 million in revenue, a 34 percent increase. And visitors may be consoled to know that 80 percent of each fee they pay will go to the park they visited.
PERC’s Regan told us, “Too much reliance on Congress for funding only makes the problem worse because politicians would rather create new parks than fund routine maintenance projects. By relying more on visitors for revenue, our parks could fund those critical projects without having to cater to Congress.”
Nature provided Americans with the wonders of these parks for free. But making them accessible and enjoyable for millions of people costs money, and the administration has a sound idea for how to get it.