Once, after camping in Yosemite National Park, President Teddy Roosevelt said: “It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.” For more than a century, Americans of all stripes have shared similar experiences in visiting parks that have been preserved for present and for future generations.
While the national park system has been called “America’s best idea,” the notion behind them loses some of its power when the stunning vistas become less accessible to average citizens. Because of that, Americans should oppose a plan to sharply increase fees for entering the nation’s most popular national parks. The Trump administration would like to apply surge pricing to 17 national parks — including Mount Rainier and Olympic in Washington. Fees would increase from $25 per car to $70 per car during the peak season for visitors. The cost for entering a park by motorcycle would jump from $20 to $50, and for those on foot or bike, it would go from $10 to $30.
Undoubtedly, there is a need to raise money to improve infrastructure at America’s national parks. The park system reports a maintenance backlog of about $12 billion, and increased popularity is exacerbating the situation. Last year, national parks attracted a record 330 million visits; as recently as 2000, the number was 286 million visits. The parks, as they have at other points in their history, are in danger of being “loved to death,” with improvements needed for roads, campsites and restroom facilities.
Yet there are vast shortcomings in the administration’s proposal for fee increases. For one, it would provide only a small fraction of necessary revenue; the National Park Service estimates that revenue would increase by $70 million — a proverbial drop in the bucket. For another, it would make the parks less attainable for families that long have viewed national parks as an affordable, accessible vacation option; if overcrowding is a concern, caps can be placed on admission. And most important, it would be a needless increase when a superior approach is available.
The National Parks Legacy Act — co-sponsored by Washington Reps. Derek Kilmer and Suzan DelBene in the House of Representatives and by Patty Murray in the Senate — would use royalties from off-shore oil and gas fields to bolster the parks system. This is similar to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was founded through legislation passed in 1964. For decades, that fund has provided for the creation and enhancement of public lands. It was allowed to lapse briefly in 2015 before being re-authorized at the end of that year, and Congress has routinely trimmed the amount of money provided to national parks.
Proposed fee increases at national parks should be viewed as anathema by those who understand that the spaces are owned by the citizens of the United States. As President Franklin Roosevelt once said, “There is nothing so American as our national parks. The fundamental idea behind the parks … is that the country belongs to the people.” Some user fees are reasonable, but a sharp increase would price many citizens out of the parks while providing little of the necessary funding.
The National Park Service is accepting public comment on the proposal through Nov. 23 on its website (http://tinyurl.com/yaudnspe). We urge citizens to remind federal officials that government should work to keep parks accessible to the people who own them — so that all can enjoy America’s great solemn cathedrals.