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WHY HIGHER ENTRANCE FEES WILL HURT OUR NATIONAL PARKS: Better Ways to Support Them

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of nine books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle." His newest book, "Vitamin N," offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life. In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

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The National Parks are called that for a reason. They’re not the Parks for the One Percent. Not just the Parks for People with Cool Gear.

Some people say there are too many people visiting the nation’s parks. They argue that increasing entry fees specifically during peak visitation times will help keep the parks open and maintained — especially, they say, because the current administration is unlikely to adequately fund them.

It’s true that attendance at some National Parks has skyrocketed, and that some visitors have damaged them. The New York Times reports that Zion National Park’s “delicate desert ecosystem has been battered by tourists, some of whom wash diapers in the Virgin River, scratch their names into boulders and fly drone cameras through once quiet skies.” One suggestion is rather than charging higher fees, parks should take reservations and cap attendance when that’s needed. That’s more equitable than raising fees.

As to the economic argument, the administration is “hoping” that higher fees will bring in an estimated $68 million. But at the same time, the administration would cut the National Park Service budget by a whopping $322 million, through a regressive fee that will hurt new users (who are less likely to buy a pass) the most.

Another truth is that attendance at many of our National Parks dropped radically in past decades. Not surprisingly, so did political support for them. Fortunately, in more recent years, attendance began to rise, in some parks substantially, but that increase appears to be primarily among aging Baby Boomers. Visitations still lag among families with children and people who are not white or affluent. As for overuse, yes, some parts of our National Parks are overcrowded, but congestion is typically on the roads, not deeper in the park. Especially in some of the most popular parks, few visitors get more than a quarter mile, if that, from their cars.

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Reducing financial support for parks is unconscionable; raising fees will be counterproductive.

Higher fees discriminate against people who are not affluent; higher fees reduce political and social support for the gift that prior generations of Americans entrusted to us. If we really want to protect our parks, fees should go down, support should go up, park law enforcement should be better funded, and more programs should be created to teach visitors, especially the young, about nature — how to treat the parks, and nature, with respect and care, and to take that knowledge home to their communities.

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The Children & Nature Network’s Natural Leaders

As part of the new nature movement, efforts such as the Every Kid in a Park initiative, which provides free annual family passes to every fourth grader in America, can help the next generation of visitors to value and care for nature — and at the same time improve the physical, emotional and cognitive health of millions of children.

We can also take the next step: While increasing support for existing parks, we can create more of them, especially in urban areas — and not necessarily in traditional ways. For example, we can follow Doug Tallamy’s advice and create a Homegrown National Park (or better yet, a Worldwide Homegrown Park); to build urban biodiversity, we can plant native species and create wildlife habitats in our private yards, green schoolyards, and even on new green roofs. Enlightened urban planning can help transform our urban areas into nature-rich cities. Nature-rich cities can make nature available to everyone, and build support for parks.

Unless more Americans feel, as originally intended, that they’re shareholders in the National Parks — that they own them not only by legislative contract but within their hearts — there will be no real political constituency to support them in the future.

Without that deeper connection to the parks — which can only occur if people, regardless of their economic, ethnic or political background, come to know and protect them personally — the nation’s parks will gradually be privatized, in part or in whole. Beginning at the edges, our parks will be handed over to the extractive industries or developed into residential neighborhoods and commercial districts. Elitism kills parks. It also kills what is best about America.
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The National Park Service has extended its public comment deadline to Dec. 22:
Click here to post a comment on an REI blog collecting input.
Click here to comment directly to the administration, via OAK.


Richard Louv is co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network. He is the author of nine books, including LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS, THE NATURE PRINCIPLE and VITAMIN N. Follow Richard Louv on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter.

Please support:
REI’s #OptOutside campaign
The Path Ahead: a special report from REI
Every Kid in a Park
National Parks Foundation
Cities Connecting Children to Nature, Green Schoolyards and other C&NN Initiatives
National Association of State Parks
Latino Outdoors
Outdoor Afro
C&NN’s Natural Leaders

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5 Comments

  1. I’m a 69 yr. old widow. I’m white and I am at the lower end of middle-class, financially speaking. The only reason I have finally visited some of our wonderful parks out west is because of my children and nephews/nieces. If I were a non-white widow living at Cermak and Western in Chicago, the last place I’d expect to be is in Yosemite National Park. Well, yes and no, depends on the various governmental programs available and my children.

    Reply
  2. The current administration’s motives aside, it costs a solid $1000 to get to Yellowstone NP and stay a few days from the east coast. A $70 entrance fee is not going to be a deterrent to visitation. NPS gets loads of attention because their two dozen most visited parks are highly novel/high prestige glamorous places. Visitation to these parks is not composed just of Baby Boomers but includes international visitors. As one mid level director at one of these glamorous parks told me in 2015 “I may not even hear English being spoken in the visitor center.” The Children and Nature movement should focus on local and regional parks that do the heavy lifting of providing frequent, repeated and expanding experiences for our urban populations. Raise hell when policies restrict visitation to these places.

    Reply
  3. I support fees increases proposed for some national parks.
    How is it more equitable that parks should take reservations and cap attendance when that’s needed. More equitable perhaps for the 1% who will have the capability and access to apply for what will become very high demand. I suggest that use limits, rather than higher fees, discriminate more against people who are not affluent. Making parks more difficult to visit will cause a decline, making more people un-aware of the great treasurers our forefathers left in our care.
    The situation is not about the current administration. Landscape Architects have been advocating for increased funding to national parks years before November 2016.
    Creating more parks is not the answer. Will not a greater quantity cause these to become common? If there is a National Park on every street corner, what’s special about that? Why do we fund all these common places?
    It is critical to expose more people, especially kids to nature and the importance of stewardship, part of which is taking care of the facilities that create the opportunity “for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” The proposed rate of $70 for select parks applies for a week, still quite the bargain in my opinion. And the annual pass is still only $80; get one and take a car loads of kids to a parks they would not otherwise visit!

    Reply
  4. Suzanne Monaghan, MD

    Thank you for speaking up about our Parks. Their future is in jeopardy.
    We have an obligation to continue to protect these lands. The more parks the better. The more Nature for all of us, the better. For our children, Nature is a critical ingredient-for a healthy childhood and lifelong well-being.

    Just starting up “Carolina Blue Children’s Nature Connection”- NPO

    Reply
  5. I have two elementary-age kids. Last summer, we drove for three weeks and saw several national parks, including Yosemite. We were able to use the pass for fourth-graders to get into the national parks for free. I’m sure we still would have gone if it had cost us $70.

    The thing about these entrance fees, though, is your fee covers a week, right? So the $70 per vehicle works out to $10 per day. It costs more than that to take the family to see a movie, and we think nature is more valuable and would be fine with paying for it. However, we were able to to stay for only two days (still less than movie tickets).

    I realize not everyone can afford $70 to visit a park. So my suggestion is to charge by the day. If you know you’re not staying in a park for several days, why doesn’t the park service just charge by the day? That way, one-day visitors will have a reasonable entry fee, and the park service still gets income.

    Reply

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