There has been a lot of press recently regarding the beleaguered state of "America's Best Idea," our national parks. The recent centennial of the National Park System in 2016 saw unprecedented visitor numbers, and this isn't a one-time thing. National park visitation numbers have been setting records for the last three years, and more visitors have been enjoying America's national parks than ever before. Programs that waive admission fees, promotional and advertising campaigns, and even uncoordinated, spontaneous social media posts have all been phenomenally successful at raising awareness about and driving traffic to our national parks as a resource for the public to enjoy.
But the implications of all of this attention have become undeniable. When you're talking about nearly 6 million people visiting Grand Canyon National Park in a year, for instance, the impact is very high. Even if visitors are on their best behavior, the strain on trails, campgrounds, infrastructure, management, and emergency services is enormous. Lines, traffic jams, and pre-dawn efforts to land a first-come, first-served campsite as people leave have become a new normal at the most popular national parks. And, of course, the reality is that people frequently are not on their best behavior. Litter, vandalism, illegal fires, illegal drone use, uncouth campers, unwise encounters with animals and unsafe selfies...the menagerie of human misbehavior in these magnificent lands defies reason.
In response to the extraordinary rise in national park visitation and the commensurate drain on National Park Service resources, the National Park Service has proposed significant fee increases in 17 national parks. While the America the Beautiful Pass would remain $80 in the near term, the one-time passenger car fee would more than double, rising from $30 to $70 during peak season. Fees would also double for motorcycles (to $50) and bicycles and pedestrians (to $30). The National Park Service estimates that this fee change would "increase national park revenue by $70 million per year."
That may sound significant, but the fact is that it would take over 171 years of $70 million annual payments to cope with the estimated $12 billion worth of park projects and maintenance that have been backlogged for years because of inadequate funding. That's not accounting for additional maintenance that crops up every day, or the significant damages that an increasingly volatile climate is sure to wreak on park lands going forward. Further, according to a budget analysis by the National Park Service, the proposed 2018 federal budget includes cuts that would result in a reduction in national park services across the board:
At these levels, visitors and partners will experience service reductions, and remaining employees will face heavier workloads. At this funding level, nearly 90 percent of parks would reduce their current staffing levels, leading to a reduction in services to the public. Likewise, support programs would also experience staffing and service level reductions, which further impacts parks.
The 2018 budget allocation for the National Park Service is $296.6 million less than 2017. With a little context, the notion that this fee increase is designed to somehow benefit our national parks seems more and more like lip service, especially when the potential effects of the 2018 federal budget are taken into consideration. Or when it becomes evident that efforts to roll back protections on public lands coincide with a new Interior Department focus on drilling and resource extraction.
But that doesn't mean that increasing the fees is necessarily a bad idea. Many point out that the financial barriers for accessing our national parks are several, and entrance fees are least among them. Airfare, car rentals, any special gear, and accommodation prices all mount up to totals that dwarf the proposed entrance fee hikes. And people routinely pay much, much more for daily access to amusement parks. A single day in Disneyland in peak season is $124 for adults, and that's just admission. Perhaps it is time for people to show America's national parks the same kind of support. And perhaps it is the function of citizens, non-profits, and the private sector to step up and assist those who are unable to cope with the increasing costs of visiting these public lands.
The arguments on both sides of this issue can be persuasive. The important thing is that you comment on this process once you've decided where you stand. The period for public comment on this matter was offensively short, just one month. The original deadline of November 23 couldn't have been worse: People were likely more consumed with thoughts of the approaching Thanksgiving holiday than fee increases. The deadline has since been extended to December 22, but once again this places the comment period deadline right in the thick of a holiday season. Please take the time to educate yourself about this issue and submit your articulate, respectful, and sincere comments with the National Park Service by December 22. These lands are your lands, and this is your chance to speak up for how you would like to see them administered.