National Parks Entrance Fee Increases

     My social media feeds this week have seen some strong responses to the announcement this week of proposed entrance fee increases next year in some of the most popular National Parks. If you follow this link, you'll be able to leave your comments on the matter with the park service, as well as read the fact sheet they've distributed on the proposal. I'll discuss the details of the proposal below, but at this point I think the most productive thing is to set aside the emotional response that comes easily, and the hyperbole that comes with it, and really take the time to think about what they're trying to do here.

     First of all, the details. The proposal is to raise the entrance fee at 17 parks, (I'll let you read the list in the fact sheet), that have been identified as the most popular parks in the system, and only during the 5 month period where these parks experience their highest visitation. This will vary depending on the park. Currently entrance fees at these parks are $25-30. The peak season rates will rise to $70, but only in the identified time periods and only in these specific parks. This increase is a bit steep I'll admit, but keep in mind that that actually buys you a 7 day pass, not just 1 day. The annual America the Beautiful pass will remain at $80, which gets you into any DOI land that charges you an entrance fee for a calendar year from when you buy the pass. It's getting to be a better and better deal all the time. The NPS has determined that these 17 parks bring in 70% of entrance fee revenue for the entire system, and the extra revenue that will be collected will stay in the parks to go towards their ever growing maintenance backlog. 80% off the money stays in the park where it is collected, while the remaining 20% goes to parks that don't have an entrance fee.

     Now, take a deep breath, and let me tell you why I think all this is probably not as bad as you think. First of all, park entrance fees have been really low for a long time. While the increase is a shock to the system, it helps to keep in mind that this is not system wide or year round. I've always been of the mindset that as far as possbile the money to run something should come from the people that actually use it. However, that's hard to do for a NPS that manages 417 sites but only 118 of them charge an entrance fee. I think the extra revenue generated will go to good use, and it will stay in the parks. The parks have been short of money for a long time, and this won't fix everything, but it will be a step in the right direction. I've seen some people saying that they'll just stop going, or that this will turn the parks into playgrounds of the rich. This is the hyperbole I'm talking about. $70 for a week in one of these parks still isn't a bad deal, and if that extra $40 is going to break your vacation you probably couldn't afford that whole thing to start with. Or maybe you should just spend the extra $10 for that system wide annual pass. Park visitation has also been soaring in recent years. If a peak season increase will cause some people to reschedule their visit to the off season, that's not a bad thing either. The peak visitation times at these parks aren't necessarily the best time to be there either. The parks have gotten so crowded in recent years that it's been straining the abilities of the parks to deal with it. In the summer here in Rocky Mountain National Park, Bear Lake road closes now nearly every day to traffic because the parking lots are all full early in the day. Parking lots on Trail Ridge Road also fill up quickly during the day. Something needs to change with this dynamic, and this has the possibility to redistribute some of that visitation as well as give the parks some money to help catch up on their ability to deal with it. Those 299 units that don't have entrance fees, including the most popular Nationa Park (Great Smoky Mountains National Park), need help as well and they'll get some too. Should funding be provided to the parks in their budgets to have these maintenance issues dealt with? I think absolutely, but we all know that's probably not how this thing is going to go. I think a fee increase to $50-$60 would have been more appropriate and less shocking to the system too. One last thing, as inevitable as this might seem it's not yet set in stone. If you feel strongly about it, go to the comment page that I linked to above and let your voice be heard over the next few weeks. Read the complete fact sheet too, and make sure you completely understand what this entails.

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