Zinke’s Plan to Jack Up National Park Entrance Fees is a Shell Game

The Going-to-the-Sun Road near Logan Pass, Glacier National Park.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road near Logan Pass, Glacier National Park.

By Michael Lanza

Beginning next year, the cost to enter 17 flagship national parks—including Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Glacier, Arches, Olympic, Acadia, and Denali—could more than double under a proposal from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The goal is to tackle an enormous maintenance backlog in parks that has built up for years.

But as structured, this plan won’t accomplish that goal, and burdens people who can least afford it. When it comes to confronting a problem that has become the shame of the Interior Department, this plan represents nothing more than throwing a rug over a crisis and calling it good.

Released last month by the National Park Service (NPS), which falls under Interior, the proposal would raise entrance fees only during the peak season (the busiest five-month period) at 17 popular parks:
• Beginning in Joshua Tree as soon as possible in 2018.
• Beginning May 1, 2018, at Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Denali, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Olympic, Sequoia-Kings Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Zion.
• Starting June 1, 2018, Acadia, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain, and Shenandoah.

If the plan is implemented, the cost to visit during peak season would rise from the current $30 to $70 for a private, non-commercial vehicle at flagship parks like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Zion. The cost would go to $50 for a motorcycle and $30 per person arriving on foot or a bicycle. An annual pass to any of the 17 parks would run $75. The cost of an annual America the Beautiful—National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass, which grants entrance to all federal lands, would remain $80 (which seemingly would all but eliminate demand for a $75 annual pass to any one park).


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The view from Angels Landing summit, Zion National Park.
The view from Angels Landing, Zion National Park.

Admission to most national parks would remain free; only 118 of 417 NPS sites charge an entrance fee, which were previously increased at more than 100 NPS sites in 2015 and 2016, after a months-long period of public input. In August 2017, the cost of a lifetime senior pass was raised to $80. That cost had been $10 since 1994.

“The infrastructure of our national parks is aging and in need of renovation and restoration,” U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a statement released by the NPS. “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.”

The proposal’s public comment period closes Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23. To comment, go to parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?documentID=83652.

The Park Service estimates that the peak-season price hike could increase national park revenue from entrance fees by $70 million per year, a 34 percent bump up from the $200 million collected in fiscal year 2016. Under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, 80 percent of an entrance fee remains in the park where it is collected, and 20 percent finances projects in other parks.

Todd Arndt on "The Visor" atop Half Dome, Yosemite National Park.
Todd Arndt atop Half Dome, Yosemite National Park.

These 17 parks draw the vast bulk of total national parks visitation, and collectively bring in 70 percent of all entrance-fee revenue for the entire Park Service. Entrance-fee revenue from these parks in fiscal year 2017, which ended Sept. 30, ranged from $2.8 million at Denali to $14.6 million at Yellowstone, $24.8 million at Yosemite, and nearly $26 million at Grand Canyon.

The argument for hiking fees sounds good at first blush. Without question, our government has allowed the maintenance backlog at all parks to mushroom for far too long; the NPS now estimates it at $11.3 billion. More than half of that consists of transportation infrastructure like the Arlington Memorial Bridge, the Grand Loop Road in Yellowstone, and roads in mountainous terrain, which are very expensive to maintain. But it extends to visitor centers, trails, and campgrounds. Some 41,000 of the 75,000 NPS assets nationwide are in need of repairs, according to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

That must be addressed, both to fulfill the Park Service mandate as well as arguably for safety. And the problem steadily worsens as people keep coming to the parks in droves. In 2016, national parks set a visitation record for the third year in a row, with nearly 331 million recreation visits, surpassing 2015’s record of 307.2 million. Some say the Uber-inspired model of implementing the fee hike only during peak season at each park could motivate some people to visit outside the peak season.

The proposal has drawn blowback from some members of Congress, including the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, where four of five national parks would see entrance fees go up. Bishop told The Salt Lake Tribune his committee would hold hearings on the proposal, because allowing an agency to impose a fee hike on the public without congressional input “(is) troublesome to me.”


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Skyline Arch in Arches National Park.
Skyline Arch in Arches National Park.

Many haven’t overlooked the fact that the proposed increase— the largest since World War II—comes as President Trump’s 2018 budget would slash nearly $400 million from the NPS, a cut that American Hiking Society Executive Director Kate Van Waes calls “unacceptable.” (Full disclosure: I’m a volunteer ambassador for AHS.)

“Entrance fees are a necessary part of national park funding, and they instill a sense to the visitor that this is a sacred place, worthy of pride and protection,” Van Waes wrote to me. “But those fees shouldn’t go so high as to be prohibitive to lower-income families and individuals.”

NPCA chief executive Theresa Pierno said in a statement on the group’s website: “We should not increase fees to such a degree as to make these places—protected for all Americans to experience—unaffordable for some families to visit. The solution to our parks’ repair needs cannot and should not be largely shouldered by its visitors.”

Backpacking the Grand Canyon's Royal Arch Loop.
Kris Wagner backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop.

The argument for the proposal has more holes in it than Carlsbad Caverns. Most people visit parks during peak seasons because that’s when they can. Raising the cost of entry then won’t change that reality for most people, especially families whose kids are out of school during summers.

This fee hike’s impact falls most heavily upon people who make less money. Meanwhile, many people most able to afford it will face no cost increase, because the $80 annual America the Beautiful—National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is not going up. The family that can afford one national park visit will see their cost more than double to $70, while people with the means to visit numerous parks in one year won’t pay even a dollar more for the $80 pass that gets them into every park.

Is it fair or appropriate to place the burden of a fee hike on the people who can least afford it?

Already, the average age of visitors tops 50 in many parks: 54 in Yellowstone, 57 in Denali. While the NPS doesn’t track visitor demographics, a survey in 2008-2009 found that 20 percent of visitors self-identified as Hispanic, African-American, or Asian-American, which is only half of their representation in the general public. Anyone frequenting national parks—especially parks not located near major cities—can see that most visitors are white and, by all appearances, relatively affluent.

This plan conveniently shifts the burden of paying for that maintenance backlog from Congress, which bears the responsibility for funding parks, to users, who are already paying taxes to support their parks.


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Hiking into Garnet Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.
Dave Simpson hiking into Garnet Canyon, Grand Teton National Park.

But the proposal’s biggest flaw is that it’s a finger in a crumbling dam. These increases won’t raise nearly enough money to accomplish Zinke’s stated reason for them. The additional $70 million in annual revenue comprises a mere 10 percent of the $700 million the NPS estimates it needs just to stop the backlog from continuing to balloon. The $264 million in total revenue from all national park entrance fees in fiscal year 2016 made up just 8.1 percent of the Park Service’s $3.2 billion budget for that year.

Expecting a fee hike to make a serious dent in that shortfall is like having your kid sell lemonade on the street corner to help cover your mortgage.

Entrance fees must be part of a larger formula for funding the operation of parks—everyone agrees on that. But national parks are not like for-profit theme parks; they are not like a commercial service that charges only the people who patronize it. They exist for all Americans. The NPS mission statement reads: “The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.”


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Backpacking the northern Bailey Range, Olympic National Park.
Jeff Wilhelm backpacking the northern Bailey Range, Olympic National Park.

Only Congress can fix the maintenance backlog plaguing our parks. But for years, its strategy has been neglect and ignore. Over the past decade, congressional support for park maintenance has decreased by 40 percent, “and the last time Congress directly addressed the infrastructure needs of the park system was in 1956,” according to the NPCA. (If you’re curious, check out the NPS budget website and its deferred maintenance website.) The government needs a real plan, not a half-baked proposal that’s mostly smoke and mirrors.

Fortunately, there is a real plan out there.

Several organizations, including AHS and NPCA, are urging Congress to pass the National Park Service Legacy Act, introduced last March by U.S. Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Rob Portman (R-OH). It would create a National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund to reduce the maintenance backlog by allocating $12 billion over 30 years, using revenue the government already receives from oil and natural gas royalties. “This investment, plus a responsible current federal budget, would make real progress toward restoring and improving parks for the future—without creating hurdles that could keep people out of their public lands,” NPCA Director of Budget and Appropriations Emily Douce wrote to me via email.

Zinke’s proposal is a classic shell game: It distracts our attention from the correct choice. His fee increases could keep some Americans from seeing their birthright without even making a serious attempt at bridging the revenue gap that keeps growing the parks’ maintenance backlog.

Instead, Secretary Zinke and the Trump administration should support the National Park Service Legacy Act.


The Grant Grove of giant sequoias in Kings Canyon National Park.
My son, Nate, in the Grant Grove of giant sequoias, Kings Canyon National Park.

America created the concept of national parks when it protected Yellowstone in 1872, and with it the idea that the preservation of such places is our responsibility to ourselves, our descendants, and all the people of the world. While fiercely divided in many ways, most nations remain united in this value of protecting the finest jewels in nature—that is the common tongue we speak, the ray of hope that shines from all skies.

American Hiking Society Executive Director Kate Van Waes wrote in an email to me, “I see Americans as stewards of these treasures, not owners.”

She’s right.

Americans have the good fortune of having the planet’s most awe-inspiring canyon system, the Grand Canyon, roughly half of the geysers on Earth in Yellowstone, and the treasures of 57 other national parks within our borders. With that comes not the freedom to do with them whatever we feel like at any moment, but a responsibility as large and awesome as these landscapes: to care for them completely.

The proposal’s public comment period closes Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23. To comment, go to parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?documentID=83652.


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