On Tuesday, the National Park Service proposed a price hike, more than doubling entrance fees during peak seasons for some of its most popular parks, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. During five-month stretches for 17 headliner destinations, weekly entrance fees for each car would jump from $25–$30 to $70. (Fees could also go up for motorcyclists, bicyclists, people on foot, and commercial tour operators.) The additional funds “would generate badly needed revenue for improvements to the aging infrastructure of national parks,” NPS said in its press release.
If the reaction is any indication, most people think the price hike is a terrible idea. National park visitors are already overwhelmingly white and affluent, so upping the barrier to entry would only continue our parks’ transformation from public good to playground for an exclusive group of Americans and international travelers. And so far, this administration has an abysmal record of acting in good faith toward public lands, which makes it hard to trust anything Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke does.
But for years, the park service has faced two dueling problems: too many visitors and not enough money. Which is why the price increase might actually be a halfway decent idea.
Hear me out. Yes, our national parks are America’s best idea, and they’ve fittingly become a favorite vacation destination. Last year, during NPS’s centennial celebration, a record-breaking 330 million people visited the parks, up from a previously record-breaking 307 million people in 2015. Although that’s fantastic news, the parks’ popularity is stretching their capacity. The parks simply can’t handle millions of visitors. No one wants a parking garage next to a trailhead. At Utah’s Zion National Park, which has long used a shuttle system to cut down on pollution and traffic congestion, visitors may soon have to make reservations for entry during peak times to prevent overcrowding and preserve the environment in the park’s narrow canyon. During recent trips to Zion and Maine’s Acadia National Park—both of which would see peak-season fare increases—my family and I rose before or at dawn to try to complete popular hikes before they became too crowded. Both trips left us feeling overwhelmed by people, a bizarre takeaway when a goal of spending time in nature is to escape from the masses.
The rising number of visitors adds to the stress of the parks’ burgeoning maintenance backlog, which includes roads, bridges, campgrounds, restrooms, and more. Even though only about one-third of the maintenance is deemed “critical,” the park service still estimates the backlog at more than $11 billion (in comparison, congressional funding for NPS was $3.25 billion in the 2015 fiscal year). Zinke says the increased fees could generate $70 million a year, though that’s a fraction of the estimated $700 million a year the park service says it needs just to keep the backlog from growing.
It’s worth noting that only 118 of the 417 NPS-controlled sites charge entrance fees at all, and many of those cost just a few bucks. For instance, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the country’s most visited park that sees nearly double the traffic of the second-place Grand Canyon, legally cannot charge for entry. In D.C., where I live, two of my main running routes—the National Mall and Rock Creek Park—are managed by NPS, and neither charges an entry fee; another—the delightful Prince William Forest Park just south of the District—charges $7 a car. The sites that charge for entry share 20 percent of that revenue with those that don’t, and most also have conservancies that help raise funds and recruit volunteers. But even with its soaring visitor log, superstar Yosemite simply can’t generate enough revenue to cover its own costs and those of sites down the bill, such as Ohio’s fee-free Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
And remember, the increase is not across the board. It’s for the most popular parks at the most popular times. And if this Uber-style surge pricing works, it could help ease two burdens crushing the park system. People turned off by the increase will (wisely!) move their trips to the offseason, where prices will remain at current levels, crowds are thinner, lodging is easier to find, and the scenery is just as stunning. Or they’ll look to one of the other 400 NPS sites to visit, giving those 17 popular kids a breather. And for everyone else who’s been planning that summer trip to Glacier National Park for years, a $40–$45 increase in the price of entry is unlikely to be the factor that makes you opt out. That money might as well fund repairs on Going-to-the-Sun Road and maybe some shelter maintenance in the Smokies, too.
It’s true that the park service’s mission is to make public lands accessible to all, and this price hike feels counter that mission. But the cost of spending time in nature is already prohibitively high for too many: Access fees, time off, transportation to often remote trailheads, hiking equipment, and camping gear—not to mention knowledge of how to navigate blazes and trail maps, as well as historical factors that keep people of color away—already block entry to public land use. Indeed, I would argue that these barriers are significantly higher than the sometimes-in-some-parks fee increases. If we really want to focus on addressing accessibility, some proceeds from the plan could provide funding to programs working hard to introduce new generations to the wonders of public lands. Or perhaps NPS could adopt the approach of many other countries’ public lands and charge the higher fee year-round for the rising number of international visitors in the parks.
I’m not saying skepticism toward these types of actions isn’t warranted. The Trump administration has shown nothing but hostility toward our natural treasures by proposing to sell off public lands and privatize major portions of park operations—not to mention its outright denial of climate change. Steeply raising prices—even in a mostly smart and targeted way—will always read like a sinister capitalist ploy. But for all the dirty dealings surrounding this administration, this is not the one to wage war against. Spend your time on the bigger stuff—there’s plenty of it.
And besides, the best deal in the U.S. remains unchanged: $80 for the annual all-access America the Beautiful pass. We’re all in need of more quality time on the trails.