The National Park Service wants to double — or more than double — the entrance fees at 17 parks to pay for infrastructure upgrades, including four of California’s nine parks: Joshua Tree, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and our crown jewel, Yosemite. It currently costs $25 to enter Yosemite by car between November and March, and $30 from April through October, and that could go up to $70.
That’s only $10 less than current $80 price of the Interagency Pass, which allows you to visit almost every park for a full year — although not every site charges an entrance fee. Ken Burns famously called the National Park System “America’s Best Idea,” so maybe making them a lot harder to visit would qualify his assessment somewhat.
It’s not just cars, either. Hikers walking into Yosemite would pay $30 instead of $10 to $15, and motorcyclists would pay $50 instead of $15 to 25. Of the 59 national parks, the 17 that would incur this price hike are basically the most heavily visited — Glacier, Arches, the Grand Canyon, and the like — so this is a form of congestion pricing. In a statement, the Park Service stated that this could up its annual revenue by $70 million from the current $200 million. (Of course, when you make something prohibitively expensive, you risk having fewer people pay for it, leading to a downward spiral.)
The public comment period lasts for the next 30 days.
In a sense, this isn’t a bad idea. Visits to the National Parks have skyrocketed over the past few years — five million people gazed upon Half Dome last year, making Yosemite the third-most-visited overall — and it’s not only despicable vandals the rangers have to worry about. As NPR noted, Joshua Tree’s roads were built more than a century ago for miners, and modern tour buses and SUVs take their toll. The maintenance backlog for Yosemite in 2016 was $500 million, of which $100 million was “critical.” It’s also worth noting that deferred maintenance can cost you more in the long run, as the powers of entropy do their business on potholes and trails alike.
So the need for additional money is urgent. Still, it would be nice if we lived in a country that recognized the value of the commonweal, and adequately funded the parks from the general treasury, charging only nominal fees to encourage people to appreciate the United States’ staggering beauty. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke claims he’s a conservationist in the Teddy Roosevelt mold, but he’s also instructed his department to roll back environmental protections — and, with this move, it’s even harder to label him a true champion for the park system.
This is the same Zinke who decided that an inexperienced, two-person company from his home state of Montana should rebuild Puerto Rico’s hurricane-ravaged power grid. Needless to say, advocates are not pleased.
The National Parks Conservation Association‘s CEO Theresa Pierno released a statement saying, “We should not increase fees to such a degree as to make these places — protected for all Americans to experience — unaffordable for some families to visit. The solution to our parks’ repair needs cannot and should not be largely shouldered by its visitors.”
This is an important point — and it threatens to widen an already enormous racial disparity. Speaking as someone whose goal is to visit all 59 parks — I’m up to 42! — I can say from experience that the crowds skew heavily white, with a very large proportion of seniors and retirees. While it may not be ideal to have 10 million people scrambling through the Grand Canyon every year, barriers to access that fall along racial lines are even worse.
Beyond charging higher fees, the parks also have to contend with a federal government that displays a relentless hostility toward the subject of climate change. The Joshua trees are already migrating out of Joshua Tree, Glacier will soon be glacier-free, and Yosemite has been on fire all summer. As of today, there are five active fires within the park boundary. One, the Empire Fire, has burned 8,000 acres since its discovery in late July, and it’s still only 85 percent contained.