National parks have a maintenance problem. There’s a backlog of $11.3 billion in fixes to roads, trails, and other infrastructure that the National Park Service wants to address. The solution, says Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, is to charge more at the premier parks, and the NPS is proposing raising the entrance fee to $70 in the high season. This would double the cost at some parks and more than triple it in others.
“The infrastructure of our national parks is aging and in need of renovation and restoration,” said Zinke. “Targeted fee increases at some of our most-visited parks will help 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. We need to have the vision to look at the future of our parks and take action in order to ensure that our grandkids’ grandkids will have the same if not better experience than we have today. Shoring up our parks’ aging infrastructure will do that.”
The price jump would be applied to Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Denali, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Olympic, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Zion national parks beginning May 1, 2018; in Acadia, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain, and Shenandoah national parks on June 1, 2018; and in Joshua Tree National Park “as soon as practicable” in 2018.
$11 billion is a lot of money, but that figure is misleading. The actual cost of critical, truly needed maintenance, according to NPS and an analysis in late 2016 by the Center for American Progress, is only $1.3 billion, about one-tenth of that. More than half of the $11 billion comes from road repair—$5.9 billion—and just four roads make up nearly 10 percent of the total. Finally, the $11 billion also includes facilities repairs of $389 million that must be paid for by concessionaires, not NPS.
The lead author of the CAP report, Nicole Gentile, said at the time, “Too often, anti-conservation members of Congress argue that the National Park Service’s maintenance backlog is insurmountable, and they use this flimsy talking point to argue against protecting other at-risk lands and wildlife. Congress should focus its infrastructure and maintenance investments on helping the National Park Service protect the natural and cultural resources in our parks, and force for-profit companies in the parks to pay their fair share for upkeep.”
The Park Service collects $200 million a year in entrance fees, 80 percent of which are legally required to stay within the park that generated them. Raising the price would increase revenues by $70 million a year, the agency says.
Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of National Parks Conservation Association, said, “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.”
The debate of funding comes at a time when the most-visited parks are straining from their popularity. In 2016, the NPS centennial year, more than 331 million people visited parks. The 2017 total is expected to be at least that. Parks have already implemented efforts to reduce the impact—witness the permits required to hike Half Dome in Yosemite or the use of mandatory shuttles in Zion—but more is needed. In Zion, for example, visitation has exploded, increasing by 60 percent since 2006, to 4.3 million visitors a year, and officials are considering limits on how people are let into the park, along with mandatory reservations.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, has proposed cutting the National Park Service budget by $1.5 billion—more enough to fund the most critical maintenance needs—or about 13 percent of the total. Also lost in the discussion is the fact that national parks are one of America’s best investments: Studies have shown that for every dollar spent on parks, more than $10 is added to the economy.
The comment period on the proposed NPS fee increase is just 30 days, ending on November 23, 2017, so if you have something to say, get on it: Comment here.
Photo of Grand Canyon maintenance by National Park Service