September 3, 1996
By Terry L. Anderson and Mark Liffman
A new day is dawning in our national. Congress has passed a law allowing the National Park Service to begin a two-year pilot program at 10 designated parks. These parks may charge higher fees and, more important, each park will keep 80 percent of the additional revenues it earns.
This change could transform the major parks such as Yellowstone. The "crown jewel" of our national park system has been tarnished by money problems. This spring, the park service delayed the opening of the Beartooth Highway, which brings visitors to the northeast entrance. Then it kept two campgrounds and a museum closed for the summer. And the potholes throughout the park aren't getting any better.
Fees and a little entrepreneurship could go a long way toward correcting these problems. Consider the Beartooth. Between 75,000 and 100,000 cars travel the Beartooth each year. Along the way visitors enjoy camping, fishing and spectacular vistas. Why not let the Beartooth pay for itself? Make it a toll road. If tourists are willing to pay $7 for the 17-mile seaside drive along the Pebble Beach Golf Course in California, imagine what they might be willing to pay for a 69-mile drive through the stunning Beartooth Mountains.
In fact, the toll would not be high. According to the Yellowstone National Park maintenance department, the park spends about $40,000 to open the road in the spring and another $130,000 to maintain it. The Montana Department of Transportation spends another $36,000 per year maintaining and plowing an additional section. Add another $40,000 for collecting the toll, and the total annual cost is a mere $246,000. If these costs were divided among 75,000 cars, the necessary toll would be $3.25. This amount is unlikely to deter tourism.
There are plenty of other opportunities for entrepreneurship in and around Yellowstone. Antlers shed by Yellowstone's growing elk population command high prices, especially in Asian markets where they are believed to have medicinal and aphrodisiac value.
It is illegal to take antlers from the park, but poachers can make $3,000 in a few hours of collecting. The Park Service estimates that in 1995 poachers collected $500,000 worth of antlers. The Park Service now uses expensive high-tech, military surveillance equipment to track down horn poachers. Why not capitalize on the resource by making antler collection legal and charging a fee for collection?
Yellowstone has already taken on tentative step in the direction of higher fees. In 1992 the park introduced fishing fees of $5 for a seven-day permit ($10 for a season pass). Last year, these fees raised $430,000. The money remained in the park and was used to control exotic fish in Yellowstone's streams and rivers and pay for research on whirling disease, which threatens trout in many parts of the West.
Parks like Yellowstone can become self-supporting. The revenues can improve the parks and reduce the burden on taxpayers who do not use the facilities. This combination is surely better for the parks, for the U.S. Treasury and for the millions of visitors enjoying our national heritage.
Terry L. Anderson is executive director of PERC and a professor of economics at Montana State University. Mark Liffman was a PERC intern.