They’re among the greatest vacation bargains on earth – the splendor of Yosemite, the Grand Canyon’s incomparable vistas, the stunning array of wildlife at Yellowstone. Admission fee: $30 per car.
Now the Trump administration is proposing to increase entrance fees, by more than double, at 17 of America’s most popular national parks starting in 2018. Federal officials say the extra revenue would help pay for billions of dollars worth of long-overdue repairs to park roads, restrooms and the like.
The cost of a weeklong pass would jump to $70 per vehicle at each of the parks, including three in California: Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, and Joshua Tree. Entrance fees would also climb sharply for those entering by motorcycle, bicycle and on foot; annual passes for specific parks would become more expensive, too.
The new fees would only take effect during the busiest summer months – giving park visitors a taste of pricing schemes that are increasingly commonplace in air travel, hotels and the rest of the tourism industry.
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Announced by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the proposal was met with swift condemnation by park advocates and tourism promoters.
These critics acknowledged the crying need for better bathrooms and campgrounds but said the fees would be too steep. While $70 might not be a bad deal for those staying an entire week, they said it would discourage a great many visitors who come for only a day or a weekend, but would still have to pay the entire $70. In addition, opponents said Zinke’s plan undercuts the National Park Service’s efforts in recent years to increase attendance and reach out to ethnic minorities and others who are under-represented at the parks.
“For some Americans to be priced out of our national parks, I don’t think that’s the right message,” said David Lamfrom, a Barstow resident and staff member at the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. “We need to make sure that these places that are owned by all Americans are accessible to all Americans.”
At the very least, Zinke’s proposal has triggered a passionate debate about the future of the underfunded and often overwhelmed park system. One year after marking its 100th birthday, the system is struggling with an $11 billion backlog in maintenance work. Attendance rose to 331 million last year, up 7 percent from the year before, but complaints about lousy restrooms and inadequate campgrounds remain a big part of the park experience. “The infrastructure of our national parks is aging and in need of renovation and restoration,” Zinke said in announcing the proposed fee increases.
So who should pay for this?
Right now taxpayers shoulder the vast majority of the National Park Service’s $3 billion annual budget. Only a quarter of the 417 parks charge any kind of entrance fee. Even with fee increases imposed in 2015 – the cost of getting into Yosemite went up $10, for instance – fees generated just $200 million in revenue last year.
Zinke’s plan wouldn’t change the basic funding formula. Tax dollars would still make up the bulk of the parks’ budget. The increased fees would generate an estimated $69 million in additional revenue each year, with 80 percent of the funding going to the park where the fees are collected.
That new revenue would represent just a sliver of the amount needed to address the maintenance backlog. This reality has critics arguing that the fee increases represent the worst of both worlds, doing little to help the parks while making the price of admission too high for some.
“Seventy dollars won’t get us there. It’s less than 1 percent of our need,” said Phil Francis, a retired National Park Service employee from Tennessee and deputy chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. “We need a large infusion of cash.”
Lamfrom said it’s unfair to impose higher fees to address a backlog that’s been accumulating for decades. “All of a sudden, for this bill to come due on Americans, I don’t think that’s a way to do business,” he said.
Lamfrom and other critics are also angered that the Trump administration has proposed a $300 million cut in the park system’s annual budget. The president’s budget proposal would reduce staffing and programming but does call for an additional $33 million for construction and deferred maintenance.
Nina Roberts, a professor in the recreation, parks and tourism department at San Francisco State University, said the Trump administration should hold off on the fee increases. Instead, the president should look to a bipartisan bill pending in Congress that would fund park improvements with revenue from royalties generated by oil and mineral extractions on federal lands.
“That is low-hanging fruit for funding much of the national parks backlog,” she said.
The fee plan doesn’t affect the $80 all-parks annual pass. There also will still be free admission for visitors under 16, those holding military passes and other groups. Zinke is also preserving an initiative launched by former President Barack Obama that offers free admission for fourth-graders and their families.
Nevertheless, Roberts said Zinke’s plan would still leave lots of ordinary Americans on the outside looking in, particularly the “marginalized users.” The Park Service has been trying in recent years to increase the diversity of park visitors.
“There’s still an economic disparity across racial groups,” Roberts said. “An increase in fees suddenly isn’t going to help that situation.”
The Interior Department is accepting public comments on the fee proposal through Nov. 23 at the National Park Service website.
The proposal targets America’s crown jewels, the 17 parks that account for 70 percent of the entrance fees collected throughout the system. The higher fees would be collected during the parks’ busy season – May 1 through Sept. 30 for most of them.
It’s a form of “surge pricing,” implemented by hotels, airlines, Disneyland and other giants of the travel industry. Even critics of the fee increase say it might help the parks by thinning crowds at peak times. Attendance at Yosemite soared to 5.2 million last year, a 20 percent increase from the year before.
“Will it help to reduce crowding in the bigger parks? I believe it will,” Roberts said. “That is not a bad thing.”
The downside of smaller crowds: Innkeepers and restaurant owners who make a living off national parks tourism are bracing for a drop in business.
“The impact will be greater among Californians,” said Bette Young, co-owner of Bette’s Yosemite Bed & Breakfast in Fish Camp. “The international visitors will come anyway.”
Visit Yosemite Madera County, the region’s tourism bureau, is gearing up to fight the proposed fees.
“We don’t support the increase,” said the group’s spokeswoman Therese Williams. “We do feel there will be some negative impacts.”
Paying more for national parks
Entrance fees would increase during peak season at 17 national parks, including three in California, starting in 2018.
Yosemite: Weekly pass would increase from $30 to $70 per vehicle. Motorcycle pass would increase from $25 to $50; pedestrian and bicycle pass would increase from $15 to $30. Peak season is May 1 to Sept. 30. Annual pass would increase from $60 to $75.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon: Weekly pass would increase from $30 to $70 per vehicle. Motorcycle pass would increase from $25 to $50; pedestrian and bicycle pass would increase from $15 to $30. Peak season is May 1 to Sept. 30. Annual pass would increase from $50 to $75.
Joshua Tree: Weekly pass would increase from $25 to $70 per vehicle from Jan. 1 to May 31. Motorcycle pass would increase from $12 to $50; pedestrian and bicycle pass would increase from $12 to $30. Peak season is Jan. 1 to May 31. Annual pass would increase from $40 to $75.
Source: National Park Service