National Parks Can Pay Their Way

Chicago Tribune
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.

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