Blog Post

Protecting Our National Parks: Changing the Structure of Entrance Fees Can Help

Apr 18, 2016 | Margaret A. Walls

National Park Week started on Saturday, April 16. This year, the event is a celebration of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary. From April 16 through April 24, entrance fees are waived at all parks. 

The promotion is one of the many ways that the Park Service and its partner, the National Park Foundation, have been encouraging people to get out and enjoy “America’s best idea,” the title of Ken Burns’ popular 9-part PBS miniseries on the history of the national parks. In recent years, the agency has started its “Every Kid in a Park” program, which provides free annual passes to 4th graders and is just one of many efforts to get children out into nature. Another program, “Find Your Park,” encourages all Americans to visit the parks and then share their stories and photos, which are eligible for prizes and other recognition.

Increasing Visitors: A Blessing and a Curse

The parks have been blessed, and cursed, with an overwhelming number of visitors in recent years—a record 307 million in 2015. After many years in which visitation stayed relatively constant, many parks have seen increases of 20 to 25 percent over the past 10 years. A National Public Radio story on March 7 pointed out that the Park Service may be a victim of its own success.

This growth in popularity has led to overcrowding, especially during the peak summer season. Zion National Park in Utah restricted access to cars 15 years ago in an effort to control congestion and reduce air pollution. But last summer, there were lines 300 deep for the shuttle bus that takes visitors into the park. Yellowstone allows cars but routinely experiences parking shortages as visitors fill lots and then park along roadways. Hikers are hard-pressed to find solitude on some trails in the so-called “crown jewels” of the system, such as Grand Canyon, Zion, and Yosemite, during the peak season. Cabins and rooms in lodges during the summer months in these popular parks are fully booked months in advance.

The Park Service is making some gentle suggestions to travelers to alleviate the problems. It is encouraging people to come to the parks during winter months or eschew the most popular parks and visit some of the lesser-known ones instead. It is also considering more Draconian long-term measures, such as daily limits on the number of visitors and establishing a reservation system for entry.

Increasing Fees: An Efficient Approach

But there is a more efficient approach that the Park Service should be seriously considering: changes in the pricing structure. Today, only 130 of the 411 sites managed by the agency charge entrance fees. The highest fee, in effect at Yosemite, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and a few others, is currently $30 per vehicle for seven days.  An annual pass, which will get you into all national parks for free as many times as you want to go, is $60. For $20 more, you can buy an America the Beautiful Pass that gets you into any federal recreation site—not just national parks but also national wildlife refuges, national forests, and more. Senior citizens (above age 62) can get a lifetime pass to all sites for a mere $10. 

The Park Service has increased fees slightly in recent years. Last summer, the highest fee went up from $25 to $30. But the Senior Pass, which many observers have argued is far too cheap, stayed the same, as did the America the Beautiful Pass. And changes always meet with resistance. There was some pushback to the increases last summer. A strong and often vocal contingent argues against price increases based on the idea that these are natural spaces owned by all Americans and they should be available to all Americans, not just those who are able to pay.

I’ve made the case before that caution should be exercised when employing user fees to finance public goods such as parks. But that’s because user fees ration use. When one person’s visit to a park doesn’t appreciably diminish the experience for others, the fee to use the park should be zero. That doesn’t apply when the public good starts to experience congestion problems, and that’s what’s happening in some of our national parks. Rather than just suggesting that people visit during the winter and go to alternative, less-popular sites, the Park Service should incentivize such behavior through a differentiated fee structure based on season and location. And the $10 lifetime Senior Pass needs to go. Seniors may be the most flexible in their travel plans and able to shift their time and location of visits. The Park Service should also consider charging a higher price to foreign visitors, who make up a large share of visitation at some parks. Many countries do this—Costa Rica, South Africa, and Kenya, to name a few.

Equity and accessibility are important issues, but an entrance fee is a tiny fraction of the overall cost of visiting a national park, most of which are located far from centers of population. For example, a family of four traveling from Chicago to the Grand Canyon is likely to incur costs of between $1,500 (driving) and $3,000 or more (flying) for a week’s vacation. The $30 entrance fee is a drop in the travel expense bucket. What’s more, the experience itself is diminished if it is spent jostling with crowds on trails and in restaurants and parking lots or if the overcrowding leads to degradation of the resource, which has happened in some parks.

Funding Shortfalls in the Parks

Overcrowding is not the only problem the parks are facing that could be helped out by a shift in the fee structure. The parks are in dire need of a cash infusion. The Park Service’s deferred maintenance backlog sits at $12 billion and includes serious problems with critical water and sewer systems, roads and bridges, and visitor centers, lodges, and other buildings. Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks need costly upgrades to their drinking water systems and face total maintenance backlogs of $372 million and $604 million, respectively. Yosemite National Park has a backlog of $555 million, much of which relates to its leaky sewer system. Raising entrance fees is not the way to solve these problems, but it could help and should be part of a larger conversation about securing adequate operations and maintenance funds for the park system.

Figuring out an efficient and fair fee structure will not be easy. It requires detailed data on visitation, for starters, and analysis to shed light on price elasticities of demand for different groups of visitors at different locations. It may also require some experimentation. But to preserve our national parks for the next 100 years, it is necessary.