National Parks Shouldn’t Rely on Entrance Fees to Offset Budget Cuts

The Grand Canyon. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

On October 24, the National Park Service proposed increasing entrance fees per vehicle from $25-$30 to $70 for 17 of its most popular parks during their five-month-long peak seasons. The increased fee will help raise funds for the National Park Service, which has a growing maintenance backlog.

The entrance fee increases, which will begin in 2018, have been proposed for the following parks: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Denali, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Olympic, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion, Acadia, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain, Shenandoah, and Joshua Tree.

The fee increase would be the first since 2015, when 130 National Parks raised fees, some up to 200 percent. Before this, the parks had not raised entrance fees since 2006. Past fee increases were also to help finance park maintenance.

The public has a 30-day period to comment on the proposal.

Under the Obama administration, the national park maintenance backlog increased from $9.2 billion in 2009 to nearly $12 billion in 2016. On top of that, Donald Trump’s budget cuts reduce the National Park Service’s funding by 13 percent, add another $30 million to deferred maintenance costs, and eliminate over 1,000 National Park Service jobs. Over $168 million in targeted funding decreases were proposed in the 2018 National Park Service budget. The recent proposal to increase entrance fees is estimated to bring in an additional $70 million in annual revenue.

National park advocates criticized the National Park Service and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke for using entrance fee increases to compensate for the drastic budget cuts. “We should not increase fees to such a degree as to make these places—protected for all Americans to experience—unaffordable for some families to visit. The solution to our parks’ repair needs cannot and should not be largely shouldered by its visitors,” said President and CEO of the National Park Conservation Association Theresa Pierno in a statement. “The administration just proposed a major cut to the National Park Service budget even as parks struggle with billions of dollars in needed repairs. If the administration wants to support national parks, it needs to walk the walk and work with Congress to address the maintenance backlog.”

The fee increases have lead to concerns that the Trump administration’s proposal will tip visitor demographics to national parks in favor of the wealthy by placing the financial burden on visitors. In 2016, National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis noted that the entire budget for the National Park Service that oversees 417 areas is less than the annual budget for the City of Austin, Texas. The National Park Service has long been underfunded by Congress, and it’s Congress’ responsibility to solve its maintenance backlog and funding issues.

National Park entrance fees have historically been a point of contention in Congress. In 1977,Congressman Goodloe Byron (D-MD) introduced a bill to freeze park service entrance fees at 1977 levels. In 1979, a version of this bill, which was sponsored by Congressman Phillip Burton (D-CA), was passed. Burton said on the House floor, “While my fundamental position is that these federal areas should be open to all citizens without costs, we have chosen, at this time, to simply restrict the administration from increasing fees in these areas or extending fees to areas which are now free.” Then-President Jimmy Carter signed the freeze into law later that year, but Burton continued to push to get rid of entrance fees at parks altogether.

But in Ronald Reagan’s administration, park entrance fees were once again viewed as a way to offset budget cuts. In February 1982, Reagan proposed cutting the National Park Service’s budget by $50 million and offsetting it by raising entrance fees. The Trump administration is adopting this same political philosophy. These policies treat the National Park Service as a business that needs to generate revenue to fund its own operations rather than a public service that should be adequately funded and maintained by the federal government.

Michael Sainato’s writing has appeared in the Guardian, Miami Herald, Baltimore Sun, Huffington Post, LiveScience, Buffalo News, the Plain Dealer, The Hill, Gainesville Sun, Tallahassee Democrat, Knoxville News Sentinel, and the Troy Record. He lives in Gainesville, FL. Follow him on twitter: @msainat1

National Parks Shouldn’t Rely on Entrance Fees to Offset Budget Cuts