Price of Admission: Balancing Access and Sustainability in National Parks

Jessica Blackband, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives


An elk in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Jessica Blackband.

Each year, hundreds of millions of people explore the National Park System. For Americans, the national parks are more than just beautiful places; they are testaments to equality and accessibility. They are open to all members of the public and enjoyed by people of different ages, socioeconomic statuses, races, and creeds. Perhaps this is why a recent proposal by the National Park Service (NPS) to raise entrance fees at the most well attended National Parks is so controversial. Despite the political controversy, the NPS should raise entrance fees because it is the best way to to ensure that parks will be enjoyed equitably for generations to come.

Currently, the NPS is pulled between the two poles of its mission: making America’s natural grandeur accessible to the public and preserving it in perpetuity. In October 2017, the NPS proposed raising entrance fees at the 17 most visited national parks, including Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Zion, during the busiest five months of each park’s year. The NPS hopes to raise $70 million per year from the proposed fee increases. The proposal is driven in part by an $11.9 billion maintenance backlog which includes repairs to roads, bridges, campgrounds, waterlines, bathrooms, and other visitor services that have been delayed for over a year due to lack of funding. As NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis stated, “the annual bill for maintenance in America’s national parks is still almost twice as much as is appropriated.”

Park managers are also worried about overcrowding. In 2018, Zion National Park will be the first park to consider mandating reservations before arriving at the park to  reduce crowds and protect fragile natural habitats. With the number of visitors to popular parks reaching all-time highs, addressing maintenance problems is more important than ever to ensure that visitors remain safe and comfortable while outdoors.

Advocacy groups such as the Outdoor Industry Association and National Parks Conservation Association have argued that Congress should allocate funding for these maintenance costs, but Congress has not acted on the matter so far. It is unlikely that advocacy groups will convince Congress to spend $12 billion on national park repairs considering that the Trump administration proposed cuts to the agency in its FY18 budget. Sustained or increased national park visitation is almost guaranteed, so entrance fees would provide a steady, reliable stream of revenue for repairs.

Opponents of fee increases are concerned that lower income groups will be unable to afford to visit parks. However, when compared to the price of lodging, transportation, food, and camping gear, higher entrance fees would still make up a small portion of the total cost for a national park vacation. The NPS does not collect demographic data on every visitor, but it does conduct surveys and studies on portions of the visitor population to better understand its visitor base. A small study conducted by the University of Idaho in 2013 found that visitors to Yellowstone have a median income of $75,000For these visitors, even tripling existing entrance fees is unlikely to alter consumption of park vacations.

However, fee increases may still be a deterrent to low-income, local visitors for whom the entrance fee is a much larger portion of the cost of park attendance. These visitors may not need to pay for lodging, food, or equipment rentals, which means that entrance fees could dissuade them from visiting the parks. If this is the case, the NPS could  offer discounts for state residents.

Additionally, keeping entrance fees low will not resolve access issues. The NPS conducts periodic surveys to learn more about who spends time in parks. The latest survey, conducted in 2009, found that only 22 percent of park visitors were minorities, compared to 37 percent of the U.S. population. The survey found that some members of minority groups perceive national parks as predominantly “white spaces” where they are unwelcome. Others lack transportation to visit parks or are unfamiliar with the activities available at parks.  These responses suggest that even if all national parks were free to enter, the NPS would likely still struggle to draw a diverse visitor base.

Keeping entrance fees low at national parks won’t solve equity or accessibility problems, but it will ensure that the list of unaddressed NPS infrastructure problems gets longer. Raising entrance fees is a sensible response to the urgent issues faced by some of nation’s most treasured outdoor recreational areas.

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