The National Parks have never been more popular. So you’d think it would be a political nonstarter to raise the price of admission. Not so, apparently. The Department of Interior (which oversees the National Park Service) proposed a massive rate increase last week for 17 National Parks that would effectively double entrance fees. Cue the angry headlines and over-the-top punditry.
Hold your wild horses (abundant on the federally-protected Assateague Island). Before you lose your mind over the price increase, it’s important to understand the heart of the decision. First, National Parks are popular, yes, but they’re also massively overcrowded. In 2015 alone, over 300 million people visited one of the system’s 59 parks and the bulk of visitors flocking to the same small handful. Those are the parks where prices are going to be increased and where the price arguably should be increased to both protect the landscape and fundraise for the other, less popular parks. The popular parks likely to see a price increase include the Grand Canyon (4.5 million visitors each year), Yosemite (4.2 million), Yellowstone (4 million), Olympic (3.3 million), and tiny Acadia National Park, which hosts some 2.8 million people annually. None of the remaining 42 parks will experience a rate hike. Among those: Isle Royale National Park, Michigan (16,274 annual visitors) and North Cascades National Park, Washington (21,623).
It’s fair to say, given the price hikes are not universal, that this is a targeted attempt to raise funds. But why are additional funds needed? In short, the National Park system is in disrepair. Some estimates put the maintenance backlog needed at $11.3 billion. Sure, the Trump administration has been promising to cut government funding everywhere and has targeted the Department of Interior with a certain zeal, but the lack of resources flowing to the country’s most notable natural resources is not a new phenomenon. The price hike program is actually a fairly reasonable step if one assumes that the budget shortfall won’t be made up for by massive federal investment, which is totally unrealistic in a Trump administration. That may not make parents looking to take their kids to Yellowstone happy, but it does explain why environmentalists, who generally stress the importance of access to nature, aren’t uniformly furious. The money raised will help ensure future access to more parks.
What’s missing in the discussion, however, is the need for more access to the National Parks for a greater diversity of people. The Office of Relevancy, Diversity and Inclusion was created in 2013 by the National Park Service to address exactly that problem: Few people of color or low-income individuals visit the parks. Price hikes will hurt efforts to open the parks to a more diverse group of people unless they are accompanied by a publicity push for less popular parks, which seems unlikely.
This is worrisome because it increases the degree to which the National Parks function as a grandiose back yard for the rich and the degree to which poor children are kept from nature, a longstanding problem in this country.
As Americans, we are public land owners. Hunters and hikers and their ilk understand this, but all Americans should have access to these lands. John Muir, who was key to inspiring the National Park system by introducing Teddy Roosevelt to Yosemite, put it aptly: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,” And clearly the founding fathers of our National Park system — a uniquely American treasure — believed we shouldn’t have to pay for that beauty.
Is there an obvious and easy solution to the National Park budget? No, clearly not. And there are certainly worse options than a targeted price hike. But there are likely better options as well.