June 27, 2005
Paying modest fees would enable
national parks to cover costs
of protection and upkeep
By Holly L. Fretwell
Special to the Tribune
Load up the car. Throw in the pillows, the DVD's, the CD's, and headphones. The season for cross-country travel is upon us. Carloads by the millions are heading for national parks from East to West.
Acadia National Park in Maine will show you the Atlantic coastline; Shenandoah National Park in Virginia welcomes you to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachian Trail; gushing geysers can be found in Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park; and mossy green tree trunks and a misty shoreline beckon at Washington's Olympic National Park. The crown jewels of this nation's park system are visions of grandeur.
Yet every park in the national system, whether popular or not, shares a great burden: the burden of political management.
Park managers, rangers, and interpretive guides are trying to make your visit a success. But these public servants must beg Congress for funds sufficient to cover even the most basic needs. And Congress often overrides local managers' priorities, defining park "needs" on their own terms.
A few years ago, the superintendent of Glacier National Park sought funds to support an expanded visitor center and parking lot. Congress provided additional funds to Glacier, but not for the visitor center. Instead, the funds restored a backcountry privy used by less than one percent of park visitors.
Many of the frequently visited "crown jewel" parks could easily fund their own operating expenses with per-person entry fees. The necessary amounts aren't as large as you might think. My studies show that if each visitor paid $9.25 a day in Yellowstone National Park, all park operating costs could be covered. It currently costs a carload of visitors $20 for a seven day pass—less than a trip to the movies for my family of four. Grand Canyon fees could be as low as $4.61 and still cover operating expenses. In Acadia, $2.59 per person would be enough. These fees are far less than half of the cost to visit Disneyland or other theme parks (the current Disneyland fee is about $50 per day).
Some people—including some politicians—are opposed to such fees. They claim that it's unfair to have to pay to use our public lands. These are our lands, right?
Well, I visit Yellowstone quite often. Should I let you pay for me? I'd love that—but, then, parks in Maine, Texas, and other states are competing for taxpayer funds. That=s why my favorite, Yellowstone, doesn't get a bigger budget. (There are 388 national parks in the United States). Taxpayers don't have enough money to satisfy us all.
It would be better for each of us to pay for our own use. That way, we would pay for what we want. And as long as managers can keep the fees for park use, they will pay more attention to our wishes than to the whims of congressmen. Park managers want each of us to return.
And under such a system, those who don't visit the parks don't have to pay. Isn't that more fair than forcing non-visitors—taxpayers who may earn less income than I do—to help pay my way?
Some lesser-known parks are also attractive for recreation—parks such as Curecanti, Delaware Water Gap, Whisky Town National Recreation Areas, City of Rocks National Reserve and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Many could be supported by visitor fees—at less than $5 a head.
Visitation cannot cover the operating expenditures of some parks whose goals are primarily the protection of landscapes—such as the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas and Isle Royal National Park in Michigan. Their ecological value would suffer if too many people spent a lot of time there. Such parks may need some public funds. But the National Park Service's budget and visitor data show that only a handful of these parks would require a per-person fee of more than $20 to cover operating expenditures (most of them in Alaska).
Keep in mind that simply charging fees isn't enough to keep our parks the way we want them. The fees must stay in the parks, rather than be sent back to Congress. Keeping the money in the parks puts us—the visitors—in charge. Paying fees may not be fun, but we should rejoice to know that most of that money is making the park a better place, something that Congress for all its money has a hard time doing.
Holly L. Fretwell is a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center, in Bozeman, Montana.