By Samantha Nerove

Our national parks and public lands are a key part of America’s heritage and future. The NPS protects 84 million acres of land and employs 22,000 citizens. “America’s Best Idea” is a precious and unparalleled resource. Last month, the National Park Service (NPS) and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced a proposal to increase entrance fees at 17 parks in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming. The NPS is currently taking public comment on the proposed fee hike.

In a statement, Sec. Zinke said “The infrastructure of our national parks is aging and in need of renovation and restoration,” and noted that the fee increase will “ensure that they are protected and preserved in perpetuity and that visitors enjoy a world-class experience that mirrors the amazing destinations they are visiting.”

The NPS suggested raising fees to $70, which is up to three times the cost at some of these parks currently. The higher fees would go into effect during the five-month peak season of each park, beginning May 2018 in several western parks. The increased fees are estimated to bring in nearly $70 million in additional revenue, and will be used to help pay for the $12 billion NPS maintenance backlog.

Campgrounds, visitor centers, roads, and other park infrastructure are certainly in need of repair and upgrading. But local officials and citizens are worried that the higher fees will make visiting the parks financially impossible for some families, and have an overall negative impact on local economies that otherwise benefit from park tourism. Some are also worried that a higher fee will lead to lower visitation rates, as a study published in the Journal of Leisure Research found. National parks are for everyone to enjoy.  How can elected officials, the NPS, and citizens support the parks and ensure they are accessible to all Americans for generations to come?


What Our Elected Officials and the NPS Can Do

Our representatives and senators can make sure the NPS is properly funded each year, and can find other ways to avoid the fee hike or minimize its impact. Each year the NPS requests funds from the federal government as a part of the larger Department of the Interior’s budget proposal. Although the gap between the amount requested and how much is appropriated each year varies, from 2002 and 2014, the NPS was funded on average 2.6 percent less than requested. Between 2015 and 2017 however, the NPS was underfunded by as much as 20.6 percent, or $8.9 million. The executive and legislative branches of government should make sure the annual budget meets the NPS’s needs. Multiple years of under-funding will add up and lead to expensive problems, such as maintenance issues in our nation’s parks.


Annual budget (in billions of dollars) as requested by the NPS and funded by the federal government. Amounts shown do not include special appropriations such as natural disaster mitigation. The amount of the budget that is appropriated for construction is also shown. Data from NPS:


The NPS could look to its own budget and fee structure to help raise money. Of the total annual funds requested, only a small portion goes towards construction and maintenance. In 2002, the NPS spent $368.5 million, or 13.7 percent of the total budget. In 2017, that amount was just $192.6 million, or 5.6 percent of the budget. Until the maintenance backlog is addressed, the NPS and Congress could increase the proportion of the budget that is used to address construction and maintenance needs, back to 2002 levels. The NPS could also spread the cost out over more parks, and/or start charging nominal entrance fees at some of the 299 (of 417) parks that are currently free of charge.

Lastly, some in Congress are calling for the government to find other ways to fund NPS maintenance projects. In March 2017, U.S. Senators Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced the National Park Service Legacy Act (the “Act”), which, if passed, would provide the NPS an additional $500 million annually until 2047. The increased budget would come from funds earned through oil and gas revenues. The Act, which has bipartisan support, would help erase the project backlog, and negate the fee hike.    


What American Citizens Can Do

First and foremost, Americans can visit their National Parks. The per capita number of visitors peaked around 1986, and has declined 20 percent overall since. The NPS needs the revenue from entrance fees for park maintenance and repair. Americans can make one or two extra park visits this year, or for some, visit a park closest to your home for the first time.

If you can afford it, consider buying one of the America is Beautiful annual passes. Each pass allows the pass holder, and anyone else in their vehicle, to enter all national parks, national forests, and other federally managed lands any time for one year. At $80, this pass is just $10 more than the proposed new fees, and gets you access to much more than a single park for a week. If you are in the military or have a 4th grade child, you can get a pass for free. Seniors can buy passes at a discounted rate.  

Lastly, we should remember that U.S. national parks are owned by Americans, and we can and should help take care of them. From artists-in-residence, trail maintenance, and citizen science programs, there are numerous ways to volunteer and use your talents to give back to our public lands. In 2016, nearly 340,000 people gave time to the NPS. As a bonus, those who contribute 250 hours or more each year, get a free America is Beautiful pass.

Let your voice be heard! The National Park Service is taking public comment on the proposed fee increase until November 23.