To Hike (Fees) or Not to Hike

“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”    Wallace Stegner

On 24 October, 2017, the U.S. National Park Service proposed an plan that would more than double the entrance fees for seventeen national parks during their peak visitation seasons. Print and Internet media instantly flooded with responses, some in favor of the plan, but many opposed. Being more than a little liberal I'm generally at odds with (and often flabbergasted by) every utterance from the Trump administration. You can predict my first reaction: Once again the administration showed its contempt for people not in the upper tiers of the economic spectrum. What a surprise*. But deeper than politics, my reaction goes back to my days as an active kid riding my bicycle into an Ohio state park that would one day become the heart of Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I wrote about that, and about what an odd and interesting park is CUVA, in a 2005 article; here I will only say I had a wonderful time walking in the trees, climbing the rocks, and running around on the open hillsides. It might be then that I learned an appreciation for “quality of the light”, with no clue where that might someday take me. Perhaps that's a topic for another story.

It's not just me; after the NPS announcement it seemed, based on print and social media commentary, that many, perhaps most people disliked the proposed fee hikes. But there's a broader story. Some of that is within the details of the proposal. Another factor is the state of the parks. And another, possibly the largest, is the park visitation numbers (crowds) that set new records year after year. After settling down from my knee-jerk reaction, I began to consider: Maybe this isn't a terrible idea. Nope, sorry, it still is.

The Proposal

The Park Service has published a Web page with links to a “fact sheet”, and for public comment. The comment period ends 22 December, 2017. That page probably won't stay up forever, so this link likely will eventually fail. (The fact sheet itself (PDF download) may persist a while longer.) The fact sheet lists the parks that would be affected, the proposed and old fees, and the “peak season” dates during which the higher fees would be in place.

A rainy November day in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio, U.S.

A rainy November day in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

A Park Service press release states the additional funds “would generate badly needed revenue for improvements to the aging infrastructure of national parks,” (Typical of documents delivering unwelcome news, this begins, “As part of its commitment to improve the visitor experience and ensure America's national parks are protected in perpetuity…”)

There's no arguing the “badly needed revenue” part. As has been reported many times, we are loving our parks to death. Every year new visitation records are set; in 2016 330 million people jammed the parks. It's as if every person in the US visited a park that year. Indications are that 2017 will surpass that number. The parks included in the proposal are the system's busiest, meaning the most crowded, with millions of us overrunning the places, pushing infrastructure beyond capacity, clogging the roads with our cars, trampling on everything, trying to pet the wildlife, leaving crumbling buildings and roads and campgrounds and mountains of garbage and poop behind, and generally having a wonderful time. We are wearing out the parks, and have left in our wake a backlog of $11.331 billion in maintenance, a major portion of which is considered “critical.” As you'd expect, the budget approved by Congress is laughably insufficient, but to make up for that, cuts are being considered.

Ironically, the Park Service strives continually to increase visitation. In 2016, to celebrate the Park Service's centennial, the parks offered numerous special programs to bring people into the parks, an effort that proved quite successful. There's a Junior Ranger program to encourage kids to respect, protect, and enjoy the parks. The program naturally promotes family visits. There are ranger-led walks, evening natural history and cultural programs (often in outdoor settings), and much more. All of this is great fun, educational, often inspirational, and encourages people to come to the parks.

Is There a Fix?

Read any Park Service proposal and you'll see doing nothing is always an option. In this case it's a bad one. Something must be done if the busiest parks are to persist. The current operating methods simply aren't sustainable; at some point it becomes impossible inside the parks to expand parking lots, widen roads, build more visitors centers, restrooms, campgrounds, etc. All of that takes space and money, neither of which is available in abundance. Some parks are discouraging the use of private vehicles by implementing shuttle buses and other transportation systems. Yosemite experimented with a parking reservation system for a month during summer the of 2017. Success of the programs has been variable, but to be fair, most are still in the testing phase.

A bison reflects in a pond on a rainy morning, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

A bison reflects in a pond on a rainy morning in Yellowstone National Park.

Ideas abound, running the gamut from ridiculous to impractical to worthy of consideration. How about a lottery system in which numbers are drawn; winners get to enter the gate. Perhaps a permit/reservation system would work—apply in advance for a entry permit covering a (limited) range of dates; if you score a permit, you can visit the park during those dates. Expand shuttle systems. Encourage patronage, run something like PBS without the annoying begging sessions; send a big donation, and you not only get to watch the programming (visit the park) anytime you want, but you also get nifty gifts. Everyone else still enters the parks as they can now, but funding from patrons helps chip away at the maintenance backlog. For $1000 (US) per year you get the satisfaction of helping out, and a free genuine ranger hat. OK, I'm being silly here, but maybe only a little. There are certainly plenty of ideas worth considering.

None should limit access to the parks based on one's ability to pay. The parks belong to us, the citizens of the U.S. Our tax dollars sustain the parks. Entrance fees help, but not a lot.The Park Service has 118 units with entrance fees; the remaining 299 don't. Various “passes” can help mitigate exorbitant fees; the Park Service offers a couple of annual passes (for single parks, or for all Park Service units), passes for current U.S. military members and dependents, senior (lifetime) passes, and access passes for citizens with permanent disabilities. These things are surely great deals, but in some cases are upside down; I suspect a majority who pay US $80 for a lifetime senior pass could easily pay much more, and many would be happy to knowing it's helping keeps the parks alive.

A Drop in the Bucket

Mountains reflect in Lake McDonald on a cool spring morning, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.

Mount Stanton and Mount Vaught reflect in Lake McDonald on a cool spring morning in Glacier National Park.

Raising entrance fees for US taxpayers, limiting access to the affluent who can easily help support the parks anyway, is not the answer. It wouldn't help much anyway. Do the math: if government projections are correct (as they always are, right?) and the fee increases bring in $70 million/year, and the maintenance backlog today is over $11 billion, how many decades will it take for the proposed increases to cover the needed maintenance and improvements? As the tweeter-in-chief likes to say, many, many.

From the Organic Act of 1916, the mission of the National Park Service “…is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” We should never have to append, “if they can afford it.”

November, 2017

*No, I'm not worried about alienating half of my audience. Both of my regular readers are equally liberal, and proud to wear the label.