July 18, 2004
By Thomas Bray
It's summertime, and while the political elites are tuning up their fog machines in anticipation of the major party conventions, most Americans are trying to get away from it all.
For millions, that means a trip to a national park for a glimpse of the fabled American wilderness. But when they get there, they often find that much of the view is obscured by hordes of other tourists and their cars, and even that the experience is marred by potholed roads, poor services and dilapidated facilities.
Groups such as the National Parks Conservation Association blame lack of funding and poor administration. But Interior Department chief Gale Norton last week released a report noting that this year's Park Service operations budget is a record $1.8 billion, up 20 percent since the Bush administration took office. This suggests a more basic problem: government ownership means that decisions about park budgets and how to run them are heavily politic! ized.
One result: The fees charged for entrance to such crown jewels as Yellowstone National Park are seriously underpriced to please voters. On a brief trip through Yellowstone a few days ago, my wife and I, as well as a friend, were greeted at the entrance gate by a pleasant park ranger who told us the fee for our car was a mere $20. The price covered everybody in the car and we could stay as long as we wanted.
Upon discovering that I was 62, the ranger suggested a "Golden Age Passport" for only $10, good for free entry to Yellowstone - and all other national parks - for the rest of my life.
This is, to put it mildly, ridiculous. Virtually anybody who goes to Yellowstone National Park must spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars to get there. Round-trip summertime air fare from Detroit to the nearest airports currently runs about $1,500 for two. And retirees and near-retirees (I classify myself as having just reached middle age, of course) are amo! ng the wealthiest segments of society.
A higher fee would have several salutary effects. It would hold down the crowds while providing a stable source of revenue for the parks.
Critics of such ideas yelp that higher fees are anti-democratic. But J. Bishop Grewell, a graduate of Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Northwestern Law School who currently is a research associate at the Property and Environment Research Center of Bozeman, Montana (I serve as an unpaid director of PERC), has researched the situation more closely.
Grewell notes that Yellowstone's current operations and maintenance budget is $41.7 million, with park officials claiming another $13.3 million is needed for one-time investments. "With three million annual visitors, the Park could charge a lone entrance fee of $20 per visitor - and still have $5 million left over each year to tackle its maintenance backlog," he asserts.
To the extent the poor really are priced out of visiting such parks, vouchers or passes could be distributed through charitable groups or land agencies, Grewell suggests. As for the argument that placing parks on a pay-as-you-go basis would "commercialize" the public lands, Grewell notes that the camping equipment, as well as many of the services within the parks, already is provided commercially. In any case, he points out, it would seem fairer - and thus more democratic - to charge a recreation fee to the actual user rather than tax the public generally for upkeep.
The national park system in 1996 adopted a "fee demonstration" program that allows park managers to keep some of the revenue they generate and spend it as they see fit, rather than send the money to Washington. But the program is scheduled to lapse this fall - and there is considerable resistance among the politicians, who like to get the credit for any spending, to making it permanent.
So if you find yourself doing more communing with people waiting in line to use the dingy restrooms than with Mother Nature during a visit to a national park this summer, don't just blame th e politicians. Blame the political process.