Americans tell Park Service to take a hike: public outcry propels NPS to rethink fee increases

By Kaitlin Lebon

Crater Lake National Park. Photo Credit: NPS

We at Currents have talked extensively on public participation and its vital role in how our government works. Participation through the public comment process is easy thanks to tools like the Public Comment Project, which organizes proposed regulations by topic and links to the commenting platform. Those seeking to make political influences as an average citizen through public comments can find step-by-step infographics here. A prime example of how public thoughts influence federal decisions has recently come to light through a National Park Service (NPS) rule proposal. In essence, a win for the American people and our democratic process!

Late last year, the NPS proposed increasing park entrance fees as a means of addressing maintenance backlogs for failing infrastructure and other park needs. Fees would have increased to $70 per vehicle, $50 per motorcycle, and $30 for people on bike or foot. Price increases would occur during peak visitation periods for 17 national parks. These few parks were selected because they collect a majority of NPS fees each year, earning roughly 70% of all entrance fees throughout the country.

As part of the regulatory process, NPS opened a 30-day comment period in October, 2017. Results from these public comments have recently been released. In almost unanimous outcry, the American public illustrated opposition to the drastic price increases. The NPS has released comments to The Washington Post.

A sampling of comments released in the article include:

  • Olympic National Park. Photo credit: Kaitlin Lebon

    “So the NPS would more than double the current entry fee for peak season…I know if I were considering a trip to one of these parks and suddenly found that the trip would incur an exorbitant entrance fee, I would not … repeat not take my family on this trip.”

  • “This price hike is just too much. Having to pay $70 just to get in would definitely make me consider other options for our family vacation.”
  • “$70 is insane!”

A major concern among commenters was higher fees negatively impacting their ability to visit parks. In a survey from Outdoors Alliance for Kids, 62% of those surveyed who have already visited national parks would not return for another visit, while 66% of those who have yet to go to a national park would not make the trip as a result of the price increase. The survey showed that access to national parks would be especially more difficult for lower income families. 71% of families with an income under $30K indicated that higher prices would make them less likely to visit. Increased costs could also contribute to decreasing diversity in parks, a problem the NPS is already struggling to address. Approximately 78% of national park visitors are white, a percentage that does not reflect the growing diversity of the American population. African Americans, for example, comprise merely 7% of annual visitors.

Secretary Zinke addresses a crowd at Yellowstone National Park. Photo credit: NPS

In response to public outcry, the NPS and Secretary of the Interior Zinke have rescinded initial fee proposals. Although fees will still have to increase minimally, prices will better reflect the needs and desires of the American public who utilize national parks.

Secretary Zinke acknowledged the influence that the participation of the American people had in helping to formulate eventual fee decisions in a recent statement: “I want to thank the American people who made their voices heard through the public comment process on the original fee proposal. Your input has helped us develop a balanced plan that focuses on modest increases at the 17 fee-charging parks as opposed to larger increases proposed for 17 highly-visited national parks.”

Yes, parks need funding, and yes, they need to keep up with increased maintenance demands as more people (hopefully) flock to national parks. But these parks are public lands that need to remain accessible. After all, the NPS will not raise the desired funds from admission fees if nobody can afford to visit.